Chapter 3. Southcoastal Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Shari) The dumb jerk! The really dumb jerk! The really, really dumb jerk! Can you tell I am frustrated? We arrive in Anchorage today, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend at 3 PM. I tell Bert we need new tires and we decide to drive to Sam's to get a pair. After looking at the tires, the young man tells us we should get four. Okay, let's go into the store to buy them. Bert goes off with the tires to the shop and I continue to grocery shop. Much to my surprise, 15 min. later, I see Bert looking for me. He needs my Sam's card to purchase installation and tire disposal. Here is the first dumb jerk: the young man who sold us the tires and told us where to push the cart for installation, but didn't tell us the other fees were a separate purchase. Okay, we do that. I go about my shopping and after paying for the groceries, take them out to the car. Bert is all frustrated because he cannot find the lug lock key that is suppose to be in its case under the backseat. Second dumb jerk: the Nisson mechanic in Texas who did not return our key and now we cannot get the tires off. Third dumb jerk is the young kid at Sam's that offers no help or suggestions. In frustration I tell him to put the tires back on the cart, give me the paperwork and I will return them. While in line at customer service a really, really, really nice guy tells me where to buy a tool to remove the lugs. Off we go. After making a couple of wrong turns, we find the place only to be told they have no such tool and we need a tire shop. Now it is 6 PM, on Saturday, on Memorial Day weekend. Fat chance! We drive past Goodyear - closed. I call 5 or 6 other places - closed. We will just have to drive to Kenai, praying all the way that we do not have a flat tire and deal with the problem on Monday or Tuesday. In hindsight, after I have cooled down, maybe Bert and I are the dumb jerks for not doing this sooner when we had more time. But I am not ready to say that yet. I am still too steamed. On a lighter note, weather report: sunny, warm and still wearing shorts. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop now. This good weather just cannot last.
(Shari) The price keeps going up. Bob, a one-man tire repair service, told me on the phone yesterday that he would take my tires off and mount new ones for $22.50 each: $10 to remove the lug nuts with his special tool and $12.50 to mount and balance. Now he says he has to charge another $2.50 each because I did not tell him I had 4-wheel drive. Well, so? Then he complains that we have recessed lug nuts and his tool cannot clamp around the nuts, so he might have to charge extra. Then he wants $5 each to dispose of the old tires. What is one to do at 10 AM on Memorial Day, 60 minutes before the caravan departs for Kenai? We pay all but the disposal fee, because Sam's will do it for $1 each. Finally we are on our way south. The road to Kenai has been improved since 1998. Soon traveling to Alaska will just be a matter of endurance without the adventure of twisting, turning, narrow roads with potholes and broken pavement. Like all others so far, today's drive is a pleasant one. Now that the trees have popped their leaves, the flowers will soon follow. We do find dandelions today. We arrive in Kenai and are delighted with the special front row campsites overlooking the bay. Supposedly we can see Beluga whales at high tide right from our RV window. Today's overcast skies will make spotting them easier. As I write this, I feel like a kid in school who is constantly drawn to the window. It is hard to focus; the view begs for my attention. Small boats motor past, seals play in the surf, birds fly overhead, and people walk on the sand and cars drive on the beach below. Mountains rising out of the ocean to my right with the setting sun and mountains rising from the land on my left frame the picture. What a perfect place for Pat to celebrate her birthday. This birthday is a special one, one of those 10-year milestones we all have to get past. She couldn't ask for a better place to have it. We all gather in front of our rigs by the picnic tables and eat tiramisu I made for the occasion. Jim and David are in fine form, cracking jokes right and left until it gets too chilly to stay outside.
(Bert) One of my favorite drives in Alaska, we travel along the edge of Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, heading to the Kenai Peninsula. Turnagain, so named because Captain Cook had to "turn again" in the dead end channel in yet another failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage, is a narrow gap between mountain ranges welded together at the juncture of tectonic plates. Today the gap is filled with water; at another time when the tide is out the channel will be a treacherous sea of mud. At Beluga Point we stop to see the Mountain Goats high up on the mountainside. We look for Beluga Whales, but see none. Wildflowers have started to bloom. The dandelions have been out for a few days, but now I also see the pale blue blooms of Beautiful Jacob's Ladder and the dull yellow flowers of Yellow Oxytrope. Strong chilly winds blow and I can feel the tug on R-TENT. Traffic is heavy in the opposite direction as Memorial Day weekend travelers return to their Anchorage homes after a vacation on the peninsula. I count 20 cars and RV's per minute, a large number when you multiply by the almost 4 hours we travel. The highway up the Kenai Mountains is much improved since our last visit - wider, straighter and flatter and with many more scenic pullouts. I'm surprised how much snow is still lying in Turnagain Pass. Ice has broken away from the beaver ponds, but at Summit Lake only a narrow edge of open water yields a place for a lone loon to fish. Our campsite in Kenai is pitched on a cliff overlooking Cook Inlet. From this vantage point we can see the snow-covered peaks across the inlet, the flat marshlands at the mouth of the Kenai River and a constant procession of birds flying and feeding below us: Bald Eagles, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Sanderlings and Violet-green Swallows, among others.
(Shari) "Here's one," shouts Virginia to Wally. "Hurry before he gets away. Go faster. Go deeper. Oh s---. Missed him. Here's another one. Hurry. Hurry. Don't break him." So goes the morning as we participate in my favorite activity of the whole world. I love to go razor clamming. Finally I hear Wally proudly shout, "I got one." He holds it up for me to see and then continues to dig for more. Not much later Virginia gets her first one too. They are on a roll and turn out to be quick learners. We four are the only ones to get our limit of 45 each before giving up and retiring to the beach. We car-pooled to the beach access and then Bert made two trips to get us all to the clamming spot because only 4-wheel drive vehicles are allowed on the beach. The tide is on its way out and we all are outfitted with waterproof shoes and clothes that can get dirty. Carrying shovels and buckets, we hike to the tide line and look for the dimples in the sand that indicate a clam is present. Then the fun starts. Everyone has his one way of catching the little buggers. Bert digs like mad and, on his knees, he uses his hands to shovel the sand away. I shovel and bend over. I have seen some diggers almost buried, arms in a hole up to their armpits looking for the clams. But the most work comes later when we have to clean them. Gathering around the picnic table we separate the meat from the shell, cut the black part of the neck off, cut the foot and save it for the frying pan, and after cleaning the yucky stuff off, we save the remainder for chowder. Pat enjoys watching the activity as her Jim does all the cleaning at her house. The rest of us are not so lucky and have to share the labor with our spouses. It still takes forever; especially for those of us who got our limit. Finally we finish the last cleaning step. Bert and I take a break with a glass of wine, to enjoy our campsite view before going back to the clams. This last step in the process is the reason we do it: eating. Yum!
(Bert) "The only thing worse than not getting any is catching your limit." This saying about Razor Clams proves true today as we count our catch, 45 clams each, and begin the task of cleaning the lot. Earlier, we drove to the mudflats along Cook Inlet. Remembering how muddy I got previous years, this time I wear my hip waders, but I still manage to splatter mud on my shirt, face and glasses while I dig furiously for the clams with my hands. Using their foot the clams dig furiously in the opposite direction, but most of the time I reach them in time to pinch my fingers around the top of the shell and slowly ooze them out of the sucking mud and gravel. Clam Gulch is at its lowest negative tide of the year, exposing the mudflats for a strip a few hundred yards wide and a couple miles long. We see dimples in the mud everywhere, each a marker of a clam siphoning water below. I had bragged earlier that I sometimes can get as many as five clams from one hole and, now, Nancy puts me to the test. I find a spot with a cluster of dimples and start to dig. One, two, three I pull them out. I search around some more, my hands buried below the surface of the water filled hole. Four, and then five come out - the only time today I am able to find that many. I guess the challenge of an audience improved my chances. But like I said before, now comes the downside of catching our limit: we have to clean them. With a garden hose and a couple of buckets, I wash the bulk of the sand from the clams. Then I cut open the clams, detaching them from their shells, while Shari separates body parts between edible and not. My task goes faster, so I end up helping Shari with the scissor cutting. We had finished digging clams shortly after noon, but we do not finish the cleaning process until well after 4 PM. Wally and Virginia are cleaning clams right up to the end, but the other four finished earlier, perhaps the wiser of our group in choosing to stop before catching their limit. Fried clams tonight!
(Shari) They seem to be quicker and stronger today. At least 10 pull harder than I do and get away. I hear they can travel down at the rate of 1 inch per second. They are so fast today that I seem to be getting more dry holes than usual. But the clams have not changed and I just must be slower today. I agree, plus I am sore, with achy hands and back from yesterday's activity. Bert and I are the only repeat clammers from our group on this beautiful day and within 90 minutes we catch our limit and head home to begin the process of cleaning. It takes as long to clean them as to catch them but the process goes smoother this afternoon and in no time we are finished. I save some for tomorrow night's chowder and freeze the rest. Between yesterday and today I should have 15 meals of clam tucked away in cold storage. I think everyone did his or her own thing today. I hardly saw anyone except to say good morning or goodnight.
(Bert) Our campsite atop the cliff overlooking Cook Inlet and the floodplain of the Kenai River is a great vantage point for observing wildlife. At high tide waves roll over sandy beaches, creeping up to the grass covered sand dunes. At low tide vast mud fields appear, attracting the Glaucous-winged Gulls and Bald Eagles - as many as a dozen eagles at a time. Today a mixed flock of Hudsonian Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers feed for hours along the intersection of mud and water. I set up my spotting scope, adjusting the tripod height so I can observe while sitting on the picnic table bench. Further out on the inlet Arctic Terns search the water. I watch a Pacific Loon, not much more than a black dot to the naked eye, and as I pan the water surface with my scope I see a Striped Dolphin humping in and out of the water. Yesterday a Harbor Seal followed the shoreline upriver, perhaps catching the Hooligans that are running now. I found one of the smelt-like fishes washed up on shore, still kicking, and with the help of Dave's reference book we decide it is a Capelin, the same species that occurs in the Maritimes (Hooligan is a local name). Right below our cliff, flowers grow, including a few new ones that have just begun to bloom: Nootka Lupine and Wild Strawberry. In the sand dunes I find Beach Peas in bloom. Below the cliff, trees provide a convenient perch for nesting birds, singing to mark their territories. I hear and see Wilson's Warbler, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco. Using the uplift produced by the cliff, gulls and eagles soar by and Violet-green and Tree swallows catch insects. In between wildlife sightings, we have a mesmerizing view of the water and the snow-covered mountain range on the opposite shore and, in the opposite direction, a view of the marsh where thousands of gulls wait out the tides and Barren Ground Caribou bourse on the grassland. It's hard to imagine a more perfect campsite.
(Bert) At first the grassy floodplain seems devoid of anything interesting. Our viewpoint is slightly elevated, making it easy to scan the vast flat land. I almost miss the Sandhill Cranes, first seeing only a pair, then two more, and then Pat finds six more. Their summer feathers are rusty brown, a perfect match to the browns and grays of their browsing grounds. Virginia remarks that the color change is so dramatic she would have taken them as a different species from the gray forms she sees in the Texas winter. Then to the right, far on the horizon, we see a caribou with spindly antlers not yet fully formed. Training binoculars on her we notice a calf wobbling unsteadily at her side. The calf is so small and fragile, so unsteady on its new legs, it must have been born only hours before. We set up our spotting scopes to get a better view and I even get a full-frame photo through the scope. The fur on the adult caribou is a much lighter color than the Woodland Caribou we saw along the Alaskan Highway. This species is the Barren Ground Caribou, the one that typically resides in the Arctic regions. Dave, looking off in another direction, gets our attention when he announces "Jaegers" as he watches two black birds in flight. One lands and we can see the characteristic shape of a jaeger, a relative of gulls, but even with our scopes we puzzle over which species. Pat and I hike along the road in the direction of the bird and a half mile later I line up my scope. The jaeger is completely black, including breast, bill and long tail, making this one a Parasitic Jaeger. A seagoing hunter, it is hard to find them during the winter season without a boat well offshore, but here on dry land they nest in open areas. At sea they seem constantly in flight and always at a great distance, but here they rest almost motionless and often quite approachable. The "empty" floodplain turned out not to be so empty after all.
(Bert) I suggested to the group that they bring sack lunches for today's outing. Shari questioned my wisdom, since the drive was only 18 miles, plus some to reach the location. Well, it takes us over 5 hours to cover the 18 miles, not because of the gravel road, but because the scenery is so spectacular that we find ourselves just gawking for hours, trying to take it all in. Of course, a few good birds doesn't speed us up. A pair of Red-throated Loons, first noticed by Wally, is a life bird for many. We find Common Loons on every lake we stop at. The lakes are mirror flat, reflecting the snow-covered mountains. The scenery is a field trip for the geology talk I gave a week ago, with lots of good examples of cirques, glacial wash, moraines and kettle lakes. On one of the lakes a partially submerged erratic becomes a nesting island for gulls. Interestingly, the Herring Gulls include some hybrids, crossed with Glaucous-winged Gulls. At the marshy edge of one small lake we find a pair of nesting Trumpeter Swans. Along the Kenai River several pairs of Harlequin Ducks fly upstream, then stop to float in the turbulence. The duck's clown like pattern makes it only second to our Wood Duck in attractiveness. Today's sunny, dry warm weather certainly adds to our enjoyment of the scenery.
(Shari) "Don't go into the backyard when you get home from work," the salesclerk at the fabric tells her husband over the phone. "There is a new mother and her newborn calf there." This is the season for caribou to have their babies and they are popping out just anywhere. Yesterday the group saw a newborn, still hobbling on unsure legs, next to its mother. So goes life on the Kenai - the unexpected, the serene and the beautiful. When the group went out birding, I stayed home to diddle. Later we had a potluck of clam chowder (from our freshly caught clams), lasagna, veggie tray and a choice of either chocolate or lemon pie. Today they are gone again birding and I am home enjoying my free time. The day is another warm spectacular one that just beckons me to bike ride. After lunch I go to the fabric store and browse, finally purchasing some yarn for a sweater and a quilting kit for a loon wall hanging. I have never seen the mountains of Cook Inlet so spectacular. As I turn a corner and look down the street, the top of a snow-covered mountain just peaks above the horizon. Other years the clouds covered it and I never knew it was there. A Bald Eagle lands on the pine tree right smack in front of R-TENT and sits there for almost an hour. I have an up close and personal view of him and wish I had the camera instead of Bert. The sea is calm as the tide goes out, but when the tide shifts, the water starts to churn and rapids form at the mouth of the river. I keep looking for Beluga whales but still have not seen one here. Later Dave and Sally, our transplanted Alaskans, come for dinner and chat away the hours until we notice it is almost 11 PM. (the sun sure does not tell you the time). We say our goodbyes, promising each other we will keep in touch, especially since we both have RVing in Australia and New Zealand in mind.
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