Chapter 10. Anchorage Area
(Shari) Today is the start of Leg 4 of our trip and I am delighted when Doug comes over requesting a later start. I can get our laundry done before we have to depart. At 1 PM, we are to pick them up for our outing to the Saturday Market. Lo and behold our puptent does not start. We try the booster trick from our house batteries but that does not work either. Bert and I don’t think it is a battery issue. I walk over to our “designated Tailgunner” Bob, and request his services. He comes over and as men always do, he looks under the hood. Now Doug and Kay, Pat and Bob, Bert and I are all looking under the hood. None of us can find the battery. Bert doesn’t know where it is and neither do I. We know where the house batteries are but not the engine batteries. We women walk to the office to ask about a mobile mechanic. When we return, the men still have not found the battery.
Doug says his Sportsmobile had the battery on the side. We look under the seats and even try to remove the console housing covering the dash. Doug gets down on his hands and knees, stretches his neck under the RV, and sees the battery compartment under our steps. He has found it. Hurrah! As the men try to figure out how to jump the battery in this odd location, I call Good Sam Emergency Roadside Service. They tell me that a mechanic will be here within 45 min. All this time, Bob’s battery has been attached to our battery. When trying a start, the engine seems to want to turn over. We keep the two batteries connected for a longer time and finally it starts.
Next job is to get a new battery. I call all over town. Some stores are not open on Saturday, some only sell batteries and do not install them, and some don’t have a mechanic on duty today. We do not want to shut our engine off for fear it won’t start again. Finally the local Ford dealer says they can get us in. We drive over there with Doug following, just in case we have troubles. Their service guy writes us up, says we need two batteries because we are diesel and the charge will be $300. He tells us he will have someone come to get the rig. After waiting a long time with the engine running, and no one showing up, I again go to the service department. Apparently, the driver went to lunch. I am assured he will be right there. He shows up and now we just have to wait two hours for the mechanic to do his stuff.
We pile into the Earthroamer and decide to get a late lunch at Anchorage Saturday Market. We spend a pleasant two hours there and drive back to Ford at 4 PM. I am told, “The mechanics are almost finished with the job.” Doug and Kay go back to the campground and Bert and I wait in the waiting room. We wait. I watch the 5:30 news on the TV. We wait. I ask how long before they finish as I know they close at 6. “Just 10 more minutes,” I am told. Doug calls, wondering where we are. We wait. I ask again. “Two more bolts to go,” I am told. I ask again.
I pay the bill which is $60 less than I was told earlier. I don’t argue. Still no rig though. I learn that the guy who wrote us up is new on the job–this is his second day–and he forgot to add labor to the bill. Since my credit card has already been processed, the cashier decides not to charge us the labor and writes it up as a courtesy discount. As Doug instructed, I join the Ford Customer Appreciation group and get another plastic card to keep with my ever increasing number of plastic cards. Upon joining the group I get $22 of free future service. I’ll probably use it towards an oil change in July. By now all the workers have gone home, including the cashier, the manager and one of the techs working on our battery.
Finally our rig is ready at 6:30 but we know nothing about the status of the old batteries or the warranty on the new ones. Guess we will have to come back Monday. We return to camp very tired. We still have not gotten groceries and I ask Bert if he wants to get milk, bread, fruit and lettuce now or in the morning. He says he wants a scotch now and will worry about breakfast tomorrow.
(Shari) At 8 we pick up Doug and Kay and head out to Arctic Valley and then Eagle River Nature Center. As in 2008, nothing much is happening on Arctic Valley Road. On our way back down the mountain Doug spots a Black Bear. Bert backs up the car and we see the bear’s little ears above the vegetation on the side of the road. Apparently it wants to cross but we are in the way. Later, we stop again to take pictures of Anchorage from our lofty viewpoint.
(Bert) I had not been to Arctic Valley before, although Shari was here one year while I was leading a group in Gambell. High in the coastal mountains east of Anchorage, we have a grand panoramic view of the city, military base, and surrounding forests extending to muddy Cook Inlet and the distant snow-covered peaks beyond. Birds are far and few between, more often heard than seen, and dominated by thrushes: Hermit, Swainson’s, Varied. A good addition to our trip list is singing Alder Flycatchers viewed several times. The best sighting, however, is the Black Bears we encounter twice, both times as they are about to cross the road.
(Shari) We stop for lunch in Eagle River before going to the nature center. When we arrive at the center, we listen to a talk about bears. When encountering a bear in the wild, apparently you must determine if the bear is defensive or non-defensive by its behavior. The correct response is different in each case. Always remain calm, no matter what. Easy to say! Always, do NOT run. Easy to say! Always carry bear spray. That goes on the shopping list right now. The talk is very informative and I know I am more aware of my surroundings as we walk the trail at the center.
(Bert) After a tasty Mexican lunch in Eagle River, I drive to Eagle River Nature Center. Here the birding is better, highlighted by two Golden Eagles soaring above the barren rock cliffs, a Downy Woodpecker pecking on trees near a nest hole, and two Lincoln’s Sparrows flitting through the marsh. Violet-green Swallows fly overhead and we watch a pair of Wilson’s Snipes and hear one’s territorial calls.
(Shari) This area is so beautiful with its boardwalks and interpretative signs along the way. As we get to the marshy part, I see a bird go past that flies like a woodpecker and lands like a woodpecker on a tree in the nearby woods. Bert asks if it is a Hairy Woodpecker and I look at my iPhone app picture of one. It could have been but I am not good enough to identify it and wish Bert had seen it. We look to find it again but have no luck. We see another woodpecker that is a Downy.
We arrive back to camp at 5, just in time for a social. I get out the margarita stuff. Kay introduces us to two kinds of tofu. I find both kinds tasteless. She says we have to eat it with fruit. I eat it with a slice of apple that she also brought. All I taste is the apple. I eat it with a grape that she brought too. All I taste is the grape. Next time I will have to try it grilled with other things. I bet it could be good in a stir fry. I know I had it in an egg roll at the market and it was quite tasty. So, the jury is still out on the subject of tofu.
(Shari) Another 8 AM start. Today I am having trouble waking up and would just like to turn over and go back to sleep. I certainly need coffee. We want to see the dipper at the hatchery and think the morning is best for that. I am disappointed to find the nest empty and no bird in sight. Bert goes to the top of the falls and I go along the river’s edge. I see a bird bouncing up and down, up and down on a rock not 15 ft. from me. I motion to Kay to come take a look and ask her if that is the dipper. Sure enough it is one of the babies. We see the mother come up from under the water, hop on the rock and put some food into the open mouth of the little one. She repeats this process. Kay notices another baby across the river on a branch. We motion to Bert and Doug to come take a look. We stand at the spot forever, but the mother never comes back. I wonder if we are disturbing her. I look on my iPhone application and learn that dippers usually lay 3-5 eggs. I walk down the river’s bank to find more babies but have no luck. When Bert comes back, he tells me he found another youngster but did not get to observe the feeding.
(Bert) Our first stop is the fish hatchery where, on May 26, we saw a nesting pair of American Dippers feeding chicks deep inside their grassy nest on the edge of an artificial waterfall. Today the nest is abandoned. We spread out to try to find the dippers and soon Shari motions to me to a spot where she and Kay are watching an adult feeding a juvenile. When I arrive the adult is gone and I aim my camera at the juvenile, hoping to get a shot of a subsequent feeding. The juvenile has already adopted the odd behavior of dippers; it bounces on its legs, feet firmly in place on the streamside boulder, body bouncing down quickly and then up more slowly. I see another juvenile across the river, perched on a bare branch extending over the water. I wait and I wait, perhaps 15 min., but the adults do not return. Then when I walk farther downstream I find a third juvenile. Perhaps that one got all the attention from the adults.
We check out Ship Creek where it dumps into Cook Inlet, but find no birds. We do much better at Westchester Lagoon where dozens of Greater Scaup rest on an island and with them are a few Arctic Terns and Mew Gulls that include downy chicks. The best bird, however, is the Franklin’s Gull I spot flying back and forth beyond the island. I remember hearing about this rare sighting and Shari looks up details on her iPhone. I am surprised that the gull does not show white markings between its black wingtips and gray primaries. That feature is what Shari reads on her iPhone also. This is the first Franklin’s Gull I have seen in Alaska ever.
(Shari) Next stop is Westchester Lagoon. I look for a geocache while the others bird. I don’t get the cache but the rest get a Franklin’s Gull, apparently a rare bird here. As it is close to noon, we head for Snow City Café, a favorite place of mine for brunch. We find there is a 45 min. wait, so we walk toward the post office. As Bert continues there with Doug, Kay stays with me to find a geocache. I can’t find it and ask a man who comes out of a nearby door if he knows where it is. He helps us look but we have no luck either. Another man comes out and plays “getting hot/cold” with us. Finally I am at a hot spot but with my height at 5’5”, I certainly cannot reach it. He gets the cache down for me. Kay takes our picture and I sign the log and post it to my list. We return to the restaurant and are immediately seated. Bert wins the prize as choosing the best meal: Alaska Crab benedict. My taste was delicious.
(Bert) We visit Earthquake Park–too many mosquitos–and Lake Hood–too few birds–before finishing our birding. After we drop off Doug and Kay at the campground, we drive to Fred Meyers where Shari goes grocery shopping and I sleep in the RV for over an hour. I don’t think I have as yet caught on my sleep deprivation while in Nome.
(Shari) After lunch we look around Earthquake Park and Hood Lake. The birds just do not want to show themselves today so we call it quits. After dropping Kay and Doug off at the campground we go to Fred Meyers for groceries. I shop while Bert naps. I buy a $200 gift card that I use for $150 of groceries. I should get points for this but notice none on the receipt. Such a dummy I am. I forgot to give them my reward card. I have to go back to the customer service desk and apply for the points to be added to my card. After completing the paperwork, I am told this will take two days to show up on my account. We put the groceries away and head home. I don’t feel like cooking so we heat up some soup for dinner.
(Bert) Rain, Rain, Go away, Come again another day! Well, maybe not. The break from birding gives me a chance to catch up on sleep and to write daily journals. In the afternoon we visit two museums and go out to a Mexican restaurant for an excellent dinner. No rain birds today!
(Shari) Rain and rain and rain! I squeeze in a load of wash before starting our day after lunch. We first stop at the Ford dealer to talk to the tech that worked on our car. He tells us that one of the batteries would not hold a charge. I wonder why since the battery still has some warranty in it. We then go to the Alaska Experience Theater to watch a movie on the aurora and the 1964 earthquake. The seats actually shake to give the viewer a sense of the magnitude of the quake. Next we walk to the Anchorage museum and learn of the early settlers of Alaska. By now it is dinner time and we search out Gallo’s, a Mexican restaurant that Carl and Sandy showed us in 2008. I order a beergarita. This actually has a 6 oz. bottle of Corona held upside down in a huge margarita glass. It is very good. We eat a lot of chips and salsa before our meal arrives.
(Bert) We delay the start of birding to 1 PM because of the forecast for
continued rain. When we reach Potter Marsh the rain has stopped and birding is
pleasant, though uneventful. When I get a phone call from Wayne, a birding
acquaintance from Anchorage who I met in Belize, we head to Westchester Lagoon.
He has arrived a few minutes before us and now gives me his latest DVD of Belize
bird videos. I had mentioned the Franklin’s Gull we saw at the lagoon–a species
he has not seen–and we begin our search, but do not see it. We meet another
birder who says the gull is now being seen on the mudflats along the coastal
trail. He also says the Western Kingbird which was reported when we were here
last, is still being seen. We head in that direction and within seconds Wayne
spots the kingbird perched in a cluster of birch trees. This is the fastest I
have ever relocated a reported vagrant bird and it is the first time I’ve seen
the species in Alaska. While studying the kingbird, we notice a Rusty Blackbird
in an adjacent tree. The kingbird dislikes the blackbird’s presence and soon
chases it away.
(Shari) A 90% chance of rain turns to 30%, so our outing today is not soggy. After lunch, we travel to Potter Marsh. While there, Bert gets a call from an acquaintance he knows in Anchorage. Bert arranges to meet him in an hour at Westchester Lagoon. Off we go, stopping first at REI to gather things we don’t need but would like. The birders get two rarities at the lagoon: the Franklin’s Gull and a Western Kingbird. Now why would Kay and Bert get so excited to see a kingbird? They are a dime a dozen in Texas but both have mighty springy steps as they follow Bert’s friend to look.
(Bert) We move on to the coastal trail and it doesn’t take me long to locate the Franklin’s Gull far off on the mudflats, near their edge on Cook Inlet. We search now for a reported Caspian Tern, but it seems to have left the area within binocular range. Instead, we find a very rufous and attractive Sandhill Crane that is poking around the mudflats.
(Shari) While at the coastal trail, Bert’s friend gets a call about a Saw-whet Owl that has fledged and is in her yard. Would we like to see it, he asks. Would we? Of course, even I would like to see it. Back in the puptent we go back to the Potter Marsh area. The lady has her scope set up on the owl and we get very satisfying looks. This owl is the fourth juvenile of five. The other three are somewhere in the area but they blend in so completely that even if you know where to look it is hard to find them.
(Bert) Just then Wayne receives a phone call he has been anticipating. His friend, Kim, has found one of the juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owls born in a nesting box in her backyard. Wayne secures permission for us to visit and soon we are back in the RV, headed to her house. Kim is waiting for us when we arrive and already has her spotting scope lined up with the owl perched high in a backyard tree. Although I have heard saw-whet owls in the past, I have never seen one. Viewed from below, this juvenile displays attractive cinnamon undersides and when it tilts its head to inspect us, we notice the dark “Y” or “X” on its head, bisecting its eyes. Its overall shape and size remind me of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The owl is content to remain tightly clamped to a branch, clustered in camouflage leaves, and staying deathly silent. It perks up to the sound of barking from a neighborhood dog and then resumes staring absently at us.
Kim tells us she is attracted to squirrels and has several squirrel nesting boxes on her heavily wooded backyard. One of her “pet” squirrels vacated a year ago and the nest box was adopted by a pair of Northern Saw-whet Owls. In late February, the female owl laid five eggs and sat on them for some time until she surprisingly abandoned the nest. Kim inspected the eggs and could find nothing wrong with them. Perhaps the reason was the severe winter and 11 ft. of snow that fell in Anchorage, with 4-ft. accumulated snowfall that limited the ability of owls to find food. A short time later the owl laid another clutch of five eggs and these survived to the chick stage. Every day or two the fledglings left the nest box and the one we are watching now fledged three days ago. After the first nest failure, Kim installed a video camera inside the box and another aimed at the opening from about 10 ft. away. Hence, she knows one owlet remains in the nest box. We take a look at the live-time video and can barely make out the owl profile inside the dark box. I’ve always wanted to see a saw-whet owl and this experience far exceeds my hopes. We thank Kim profusely for providing the opportunity.
(Shari) The owl’s nest was made in a squirrel box. This owl is from the second batch of eggs this year. The first ones were frozen when the mom abandoned them in February, presumably because her mate did not come back to feed her. Anchorage had 11 ft. of snow this year and owls can forage down 2 ft. She must have gotten another mate as two weeks later she was back on the nest. The owner of the house put up a camera in the box so she could watch the progress of the eggs. She has it on ustream. Today there is still one chick left in the nest box. We watch this cute owl for a long time and then notice the woman has chickens. She says they are friendly and do we want to hold them. I get a cute picture of Kay holding a chicken. By this time it is almost 7 PM and Doug suggests that we eat at Applebees because he has gift cards. Great, we take him up on the invitation and have a delightful meal.
(Bert) The sun, the sun, we can see the sun! Rainstorms are flushed from the skies, gray clouds are vacuumed away, replaced by blue skies and a bright yellow sun bathing vibrant green grass and luxurious trees. Near Palmer, we walk along a narrow little-used gravel road, paralleling railroad tracks and bordering a wet marsh. Bird songs fill the air and I often can pick out four or five varieties singing simultaneously. Among them are Alder Flycatchers, Swainson’s Thrushes, Northern Waterthrushes, Blackpoll Warblers, Savannah Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Common Redpolls. I hear a distant Olive-sided Flycatcher, the first on our trip.
(Shari) We start late for our drive to Palmer. The sun is shining and my, what a difference it makes to my disposition. We take the RVs down a road behind the campground we used in Palmer in past years, noticing it is now closed. Parking at a little widening, we walk the road, listening and enjoying the beautiful day. I notice Kay and Bert do a little dance: up and down go the binoculars as if in time to some unheard music. They must both be seeing a bird fly by at the same time, but it looks choreographed. We walk so far that I decide to walk back to retrieve the RV, pick the group up, and letting them bird more. We find the campground that Bob and Pat used a week ago and check in. Bert is very tired (I still think he needs more medicine) and naps. By the time he wakes up, Kay and Doug are out walking and he has to bird alone. I get on the Internet to do some business and buy my nephew a wedding gift. I remember doing this for others in the past before the Internet and it was a pain, buying the package, wrapping it, and looking for a post office to mail it. Now it can be done with a few clicks of a button. At 5 it is time to socialize and I walk around the “taco wagon” and see Kay cutting Doug’s hair. How do you cut hair on a man that has none? We have a nice time and talk too long so it is late by the time we are eating our supper.
(Bert) Quickly turning to the source of the crashing noise, I see a car jump the curb, collide with a 2-foot-high fire pit enclosure, spilling out accumulated ash and unspent charcoaled logs. The car hesitates a second or two, then continues in a crazy circle just past where Doug and I are standing. We stand frozen in inaction, stunned by what we are witnessing. Within seconds, the car completes its circle and stops abruptly in the middle of the small wayside parking lot. Kay jumps out of the Earth Roamer wondering what zoomed past her and almost as quickly, Shari comes from where she has been searching for firewood. We stare at the attractive compact Mercedes Benz, now displaying a severely damaged front bumper and grill, and limping with one flat tire and another cocked at an odd angle. The elderly driver climbs out and I ask him if he his alright. He does not answer. Soon his wife exits also but remains silent as well. They speak only a very few words of English, but we deduce that the driver hit the accelerator instead of the brake while trying to park near where we were standing.
It soon becomes apparent that the driver has little experience with automobiles or mechanics. In slow and deliberate English, mixed with generous hand motions and finger pointing, we explain how he should change the flat tire. I point to where he can attach the jack to the frame and Shari corrects the direction he attempts to loosen the tire nuts. The lugs are very tight and he has to jump on the handle of the wrench to loosen them. The car starts to roll off the jack and Doug opens the door and notices the emergency brake is not engaged. Doug insures he mounts the small donut spare tire in the proper direction, but when the man attaches it at a cock-eyed angle, Kay has to show him it is not properly aligned. Doug points to the sequence in which he should tighten the nuts. It seems every action requires our advice. Meanwhile Shari tries communicating with the lady. We can tell the new Mercedes is not a rental, that the couple apparently has a son somewhere in Alaska, probably Anchorage, but cannot reach him by cell phone. We are uncertain of their nationality, suspecting an oriental background, perhaps Japanese, but they say so few words that we are only guessing. Persistently, Doug tries to impress on them that they should not drive far or fast with the donut spare tire and should get it replaced in Palmer. I suspect none of this communication was successfully transmitted. Shari gives them two bottles of water and, with one tire replaced and the front tire barely rubbing on the front fender, the driver leaves us and heads downhill in the direction of Palmer. I hope they reach their son by phone for more help.
(Shari) We start early, expecting a partly cloudy day. The weather man is wrong again and it is cool and cloudy. Today we drive the Hatcher Pass road, one of my favorite roads in Alaska. It traverses three types of eco zones and, before we are done, we are high above timberline.
We stop at a state campground and start to walk the trail, noticing lots of scat from something. It looks fresh. Coupled with clumps of fur that could be bear, I am very aware of my surroundings. At least we are carrying the bear spray but I am uncomfortable and want to turn back. We notice so many oriental people picking fiddlehead ferns. I too pick some, and one of the men tells me that I must dry them out and not eat them now as they contain ammonia. This is news to me as I have often eaten them fresh right away. I was going to serve them for supper but now I know Kay won’t eat them. When we get to the top of the road, I go into the lodge and find out they only are serving drinks and no food. So I make tomato soup for everyone. Again the road is closed to the historical mine spot so we decide to walk the mile up the gentle incline. Later, it will be easy going downhill. While Kay and Bert bird, I make a snowman. The snow is melted more than in previous years, and we get to walk two of the paths and read the interpretative signs. The mine was active 72 yr. ago. That to me is not all that long ago yet this is an historical site. Ugh!
(Bert) After relating the excitement for the day, allow me to backtrack to the start of our climb up Hatcher Pass. Traversing three ecosystems, we start in a vibrant birch and cottonwood forest where the Little Susitna River rushes mightily over large gray boulders, rounded by years of water and ice carving. The roar of the river nearly drowns out the sweet singing of Hermit Thrushes and the piercing songs of Northern Waterthrushes. As we ascend in elevation up Hatcher Pass and following the river, the tree cover thins and we transition into subalpine, nicely marked by the profusion of False Hellebore and Wild Geranium filling the gaps between 6 ft. alders. Kay and I hear a short, but repeated, screeching call and although I recognize almost all songs and calls of the birds we have regularly been seeing, I do not know this one. I make a pishing sound and out jumps a small red-tailed bird which immediately hides in another alder. I guess it is a Fox Sparrow, though I’ve never noticed them make this call before. A bit later Kay is thumbing through bird songs and hits upon the same call we just heard. It is from a Hermit Thrush. That’s one I’ll have to store in my memory bank.
Near the ecotone between subalpine and alpine we watch an Orange-crowned Warbler and get a good view of its orange crown each time it throws back its head to sing. At the higher altitudes Wilson Warblers become more common and then they disappear too and our species variety is reduced to sparrows–Golden-crowned, White-crowned, and Savannah–and Common Redpolls. Here, too, are at least a dozen Arctic Ground Squirrels, recently out of hibernation and staring at us like prairie dogs. The last mile of the inclined road to Independence Mine is still closed. Snow was removed from the road yesterday and still covers much of the roadsides and forms rivulets cascading down the mountain slopes. Often, the snow is red in color, as it is thinly covered in red algae. Here winter still holds its grip, though the buds on the stunted aspen and willows are about to burst into leaves. I repeatedly scan the alpine slopes for ptarmigans, but find none. Doug and Kay locate a Golden Eagle and we watch it soar above the cliffs a half-mile above us. We walk past some of the old mining buildings, abandoned in the early 1940s. Most we cannot reach as the walkway is still covered with high snow drifts. As we leave the parking lot, I point out a pair of Hoary Marmots.
(Shari) As we start our walk down, it starts to drizzle. Darn! It will not be fun to camp without utilities in the rain so we decide to drive to Wasilla and take the first campground we see. But first we stop at Fred Meyers and I get lesson 303 in gift-carding. Doug notices that if you buy a gift card, you will get four times the amount in fuel points. So I buy $250 in cards and get 1000 points. With 1000 points I will get $1 off a gallon of gas up to 35 gal. Now, that is a good return on investment since I will use the gift cards for future purchases at Bed Bath and Beyond, Best Buy, and Amazon. We find a campground up the road, pretty junky, but it has Internet. Kay makes a delicious salmon spread and I comment that her margaritas taste better than mine and they both come from the same kind of bottle. It must be the fancy glasses and slice of lime she added. I serve lemon pepper tilapia, green beans and rice, which we top off with Kay’s special Baileys coffee. A nice end to a nice day!
Next Day Table of Contents