Molly travels well, always wanting to be with us. The mornings we have to take down camp to move on are sometimes tricky to get her out for a walk before we leave. Today, we knew there was a hike ahead outside of Palmer. Unfortunately we forgot we would be hiking and both of us had flip flops on, but it was only one mile to Thunderbird Falls. After driving a few hours, I grabbed the only water bottle we had with us in the car, but it only had a few ounces left of water. Well, the hike is only two miles, we don’t need that much water. It was 80F but the trail was mostly in the shade. We set out, all of us eager to stretch our legs. Thunderbird Falls were less than impressive but we snapped the obligatory photo and turned around to head back. Our rig wouldn’t fit in the trailhead parking lot so we were in a pullout just down the road. As we were walking down the road, a truck pulled over to us. He rolled down the window and held up 2 water bottles for us. Turns out he’s a driver for Clear Alaskan Glacier Water. He had pulled the bottles out of a cooler and told us to have a blessed day. That chilled water sure hit the spot! We gulped one before we even got back to the truck.
The laundry pile was stacking up so we decided to splurge on Fox Run RV Park in Palmer to catch up on laundry, and fill/empty our tanks. It’s also nice to charge up the batteries for the freezer as we’ve had some problems with the solar in the trailer getting run down too quickly, resorting to using the generator more than planned. It turns out this luxury is one we regretted. We woke up the next morning to find sap on everything – the truck, the camper, the awnings above the slides, the rocks on the ground. Because we were walking outside, leaves and dirt would stick to the sap on our shoes (and Molly’s feet) and get tracked into the camper. What a mess! We had already paid for 2 nights, and everything was already sticky, so we stayed put so we could see what we came to see, but Mark was dreading the cleanup.
Palmer’s claim to fame is giant vegetables, world record sized, in fact. The long summer daylight hours paired with rich mineral soil are the perfect combination to grow food. We stopped at the Palmer Visitor Center, which has a showcase garden. While I did get a picture of one extra large cabbage, there were less giant vegetables that I expected to see. Then again, a lot of the vegetables that grow well in Alaska grow under the soil (potatoes, carrots, beets), which obviously makes it hard to see them. The state fair is the last week of August and that’s where the record breaking competition is. To date, Alaska boasts the world’s largest cabbage (138 pounds), largest potato (over 4 pounds), largest carrot, among others. We drove the Farm Loop just outside of town to see the agriculture happening here.
I had read that there was salmon fishing at nearby Eklutna Tailrace. Tailrace? What does that even mean? No idea. But when I was folding laundry, an older man started cleaning some fish next to me and he confirmed that’s where he had just come from. What kind of salmon were they, I wanted to know. SILVER! Also known as coho, this is what we’ve been looking for! Mark loaded up our gear and off we went. The best part about this fishing was actually spinning and casting. Even though the spacing between fishermen in the river was about the same as Kenai, there were maybe 30 people in this small river inlet area created by AK Fish & Game. That being said, we were still mostly snagging fish. We did let them go if they weren’t caught in the mouth though. Here the limit was 3 per person. I successfully landed a male and female silver! (See pic below and you can see the difference. Female is on top.) They were a little smaller than the reds we had caught, maybe 5 pounds each. We both caught quite a few more than that, but either we couldn’t land them or snagged them somewhere other than the mouth. Although the river was silty and we couldn’t see into the water, we could feel the lure bouncing off the fishes’ backs as we reeled our lines in on each cast. They are that thick! As a taste test, I cooked one silver (coho) filet and one red (sockeye) filet so we could compare, just baked in simple butter and herbs with a slice of lemon on top so we could really get a flavor for the meat. We both preferred the silver, though enjoy both. The texture of the coho was softer, less dense, and the flavor a little milder.
On our last morning, we were quick to get packed up and out of the sappy campground so we could try our fishing hole again on the Eklutna River. We fished for almost 2 hours without so much as a bite and we ready to pack it up and move on. Not exactly a tourist destination, Palmer didn’t have a lot of shops but we did restock at the grocery store (and invested in sap removal and car wash supplies). So far, Palmer has been our least favorite stop, a bit disappointing.
Our next destination is Valdez, another seaside fishing town. Mark’s request was that we would fish in the ocean from shore. It was a two hour drive to Glennallen and then another 2+ hours to Valdez. The drive on the Glenn Highway to Glennallen is what I was expecting all of Alaska to be, a homestead or farm separated by land and then followed by the next farm. The road was paved but not especially smooth. As we got closer to Glennallen, we started seeing mountain peaks covered in snow ahead of us. One mountain range was billowing white smoke and we dreaded that we’d be dealing with another fire/smoke issue.
There were two visitor centers that we wanted to get just outside of Glennallen. We made it to the Copper River area Visitor Center where we got some fishing info before they closed. She also confirmed that the fire was on land that they would let burn itself out. The Wrangell-St Elias National Park Visitor Center on the Copper River closed before we could get there. We found a boondock spot on the Copper River and slept well off the side of the road in Glennallen, convenient to getting to the other visitor center as soon as they opened the next morning. Mark did throw in a fishing line a handful of times in the Copper River, but the water was so silty and moving so fast, he knew it wasn’t going to be good fishing so didn’t try for long. Technically located off national park property, we made it to the Wrangel-St Elias Visitor Center and got an ATV permit and watch the informational video on the park. Wrangell St Elias is the largest national park in America. It’s 6 times bigger than Yellowstone and boasts 9 of the 16 highest peaks in North America! There are 2 unpaved roads into the park and the rest is completely inaccessible except by plane. This park is unusual in that you are allowed to drive ATVs on the roads and also dogs are allowed on all the trails here (there aren’t many). Natives used to hunt on this land before it became a national park so they have made agreements to continue to allow subsistence hunting for natives, which is unique to a national park. The handful of short side roads off the main roads are mostly for hunting use. We wouldn’t be getting into the park land for a few more days, but now we’ve got our ATV permit so we’re ready once we get there.
Our drive to Valdez commenced on the Richardson Highway, arguably the prettiest yet. When I say pretty, I mean the scenery. The road itself was paved but bumpy with frost heaves, pavement repairs, sections of gravel, and two constructions zones where we had to stop for 15 minutes each waiting for the pilot car. We made a brief stop for a photo opportunity at Worthington Glacier. There were two huge waterfalls right next to the road: Bridal Veil Falls (pic below) and Horsetail Falls. The drive we thought would take 2 hours to get to Valdez was over 3 hours due to construction delays. (Have I mentioned yet that everything takes longer than you expect in Alaska?) There is always a little anxiety getting to a new town on a Friday as we’re trying to arrive early enough to get a campsite before the locals arrive for the weekend. The short version is that we pulled into 2 full campgrounds and had to call 4 RV parks before finding a spot. Typically RV parks are our last resort. They are over double the price as a municipal or state campground, packed in close next to neighbors, and typically resemble a parking lot more than a campground. After hearing the second RV park tell me they were completely booked, I found out the women’s silver salmon derby was going on tomorrow and everything was booked. Because persistence always pays off, I called the KOA just outside of town. They just had a cancellation so we rolled in. This was the nicest RV Park in Valdez, by far! At this point, we were thrilled to have a site, no matter the cost. The campers actually had a fair distance between them and the campground was surrounded and interspersed by trees. Perfect!
After spending the afternoon unwinding a bit, we went into town for dinner. Imagine how happy Mark was to see the tv in the restaurant was tuned to the first Steelers preseason football game. With a few hours of daylight left, we headed to Allyson Point to fish in the ocean. We heard that the silver salmon haven’t really come in yet, but there are still tons of pinks. We had caught pink salmon in Talkeetna but we ate everything we had then so we decided to try to get some to bring home. You could see the fish jumping everywhere! The closer we got to the water, the more fish you could see! They were right along the bank, millions of them! As with everywhere we have fished, the water was turquoise hued with silty gray, but you could see the masses of fish right in front of you. The fishing area was a bit tricky as it’s as a rocky bank. We are used to fishing from rocks in Colorado, but with tide levels changing in Alaska, these rocks get slick when wet. We caught fish right away, and learned quickly that landing them brought a new challenge with the rocks. We hadn’t brought our net, which I’m not sure would have actually helped. Trying to get the fish off the hook, either needing to bat it if was a keeper or just trying to release it, was a challenge as a 3-4 pound fish was now flopping against and in between rocks, soaking the rocks and making them slick. We kept one fish that Mark caught and called it a night. As I was cleaning the fish, Mark spotted a sea lion fishing for his dinner. He would swirl the fish underwater and then breach completely as he flipped the fish around. The sky was peach and orange with sunset while we sat entranced by the sea lion for about half an hour. He was just far enough offshore for us to not get a good picture or video with our iPhone and we regret not having captured this unforgettable display of nature. It is one of my favorite Alaskan memories.
We drove into the small town of Valdez the next morning just to mill around and get a feel for the town. It is surprising how little tourist shopping there is here. We literally found one shop and a few restaurants. Their biggest bulk of business is done on fishing charters. Practically every stop in Alaska offers a place to eat fish and chips. After asking a local for her favorite restaurant, we went to the Alaska Halibut House and enjoyed our favorite fish and chips of the trip. Perfectly breaded and fried, not too greasy, Mark had popcorn shrimp with fried cod while I had the fried cod.
Near where we had fished last night, there is a huge pink salmon fish hatchery that we wanted to check out. The Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery boasts 400,000 pink salmon that return every year. It was an unbelievable scene. Since it was a Saturday, the hatchery was closed and no one was working inside, but we did the self guided tour and watched their videos. There were thousands of fish coming from the ocean to spawn, returning to the hatchery where they were born. So many fish, they were pushing each other out of the water! (In the picture, look close, most of what you can see is fish, not rocks.) Seagulls thronged to feast on the weak and unsuccessful. What a display of survival of the fittest – only the healthiest, strongest fish finish the journey to reproduction. There were signs around warning us of bears, and though we passed this road several times, we never did see any. Just in case you hadn’t already noticed, we have been so fascinated by the life cycle of the salmon, how it affects the ecosystem and economy around them, and just how many fish there have to be in Alaska to see this many survive ocean predators, freshwater predators, and fishermen to make it back to where they were born.
I was thrilled to learn there was a place to kayak through an ice lake to a glacier right outside Valdez. We dropped the kayaks into the freezing lake of the Valdez Glacier. Icebergs, sections of glacier, and floating ice cubes greeted us. Glaciers can be deceiving in their beauty. They are often covered in dirt and rocks they have carved off the mountains as they are pulled down by gravity. The blue hue you see is actually a trick of lighting called refraction. Blue is the only wavelength that has the energy to be absorbed after all of the ice is condensed and compacted together. Years before this trip began, one of the items I put on my bucket list for Alaska was to make a mixed drink with glacial ice. Because it isn’t smart to approach the face of a glacier in a kayak (two dangers here – ice calving from falling ice and rocks as well as potential for a huge tidal wave that can endanger the kayak), Mark scooped an ice cube floating in lake for me. Once back on shore, I celebrated my victory and crossed this item off the bucket list. Fireball was just as spicy on glacial ice!
Mark wanted to spend some time cleaning the sap off the truck and camper before we left the campground with hookups and thus a water source. I set off for a run on the bike path. I carry a running pouch with bear spray in the water holster. I was right at the mile and a half mark when I looked ahead and saw a coyote just off the trail, who spotted me at the same time. It was maybe 100 feet ahead of me. As I debated my next move, we just looked at each other. And then it started coming toward me a few steps. I took a few backward steps and it continued to take a few forward steps and that’s when I got nervous. I don’t think a solitary coyote would attack a healthy, fighting person, but I don’t know how hungry it is. I raised up my arms to get as big as I could and roared like a bear. It stopped and looked again, obviously evaluating me. Though still far enough away that I wasn’t concerned with imminent attack, I tried to call Mark on his cell. We had good cell service at the campground (which was a mile and a half away). I could hear him say hello and then nothing. I tried again, nothing. Finally the standstill ended as the coyote retreated into the bushes. At that point, I was nervous to keep going as I’d have to pass those bushes that were maybe only 10 feet off the trail, but I was also nervous to retreat if he was going in the same direction. Running near wildlife is not very smart as it can trigger their prey response and give reason to chase. It was right then that I could hear gravel flying as Mark drove the truck on the road up to me. Getting my call but unable to connect had given him a bit of a panic. It’s good to know I have quick rescue service! Mark drove on down the road to take one final peek for bears while I ran another mile. When he passed by me to go back to the campground, I hopped in, not wanting to tempt fate (or pass by the coyote bushes.) Though not impressed with the town of Valdez itself, again we found memories and moments that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else.