Chapter 4.  Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

Bert & Shari Frenz, 1998 All rights reserved.

Day 41 - June 21, 1998 - Milepost 5362 (237 today) - Anchorage, AK

(Bert) Missing church one Sunday is like playing hooky from school, but after three weeks in the wilderness, it’s starting to make me feel like I haven’t bathed in the same length of time. So this morning we take advantage of the informal worship services offered at Denali. There are no churches in the area, but a retired Oregon pastor and his wife are spending the summer offering Sunday services in three locations separated by 80 miles. We depart Denali shortly thereafter, heading south to Anchorage. For 200 miles our windshield wipers sweep patiently in light to medium rain and we see little of the surrounding boreal forest. When we reach Houston, we remark to each other about the dramatic changes since we past this same area two years ago. Houston and nearby Big Lake were the site of Alaska’s most destructive forest fire when more than 37,000 acres and 350 homes were burned. In 1996 we passed through throat-irritating smoke which extended all the way to Anchorage, casting a black cloud over the city. Today the community is bustling with activity, new shops, new homes, new streets. There is even a new bike path that connects to Wasilla and intermittently extends all the way to Anchorage, some 40 miles in all. At Wasilla, for the first time in 2,300 miles, the road splits into a four-lane divided highway and is snarled in traffic headed both directions. Wasilla is a resort community that serves as the Lake Conroe equivalent of Houston, Texas, a place for some to commute to Anchorage daily and others to enjoy on weekend outings. As the rain begins to lighten, we drive through the Mat-Su valley and pass a sign announcing the winter death toll of 193 moose killed along this stretch of road. By the time we hit Anchorage, the rain stops. We dry camp at Centennial Campground, a secluded woods just off busy Glenn Highway. In tonight’s e-mail I read of Clyde and Sarita’s complaints about Alaska roads. Our experience has been different. Of course, the little traveled and graveled Denali Highway was a bit slow, but the Tok to Delta Junction highway, the Richardson Highway and the Parks Highway have been great. For today’s travel I set the cruise control at 55 and only slowed for the three-building intersections here called towns. Even the railroad track intercepts can be crossed at 55 m.p.h. Clyde drove Glenn Highway from Tok to Glennallen, a road plagued with frost heaves and one I’m glad we avoided.

(Shari) I do not realize it is Father’s Day until the pastor of the Alaskan Highway Mission mentions it in his sermon. We attend church services in the Parks Hotel auditorium this morning with only a few people occupying the many chairs. We are the first to arrive and help the retired pastor and his wife find the lights and pass out hymn books. Service starts with eight people, but more trickle into the room and by the end of the service some 20 souls are present. At 9 a.m. it is time for the Baptists to use the auditorium. They seem to have more in attendance. Jean had lost her hat on the Denali van tour, so we spend the next frustrating 45 minutes attempting to find the Alpenglow office. No one we ask has heard of it, until finally some helpful clerk calls their phone number and asks their location. We are right across the street. Once in their office, Jean finds that no hat has been returned but she can address an envelope, inside which the hat can be placed, if it shows up. Finally we are on our way. We travel most of the day in the rain and reach Anchorage around 4 p.m. I am unnecessarily concerned that all the campsites will be filled, because we find many adequate sites open to us at Centennial Campground. Deciding to do our 3-week accumulation of dirty clothes we set off to locate a Laundromat. We are told it is at 800 Muldoon. There is no laundry there. I ask a clerk at a Fred Meyer’s store but he only knows of a laundry on Northern Lights Blvd. I look in the phone book and see an address of 180 Muldoon. Upon arriving there we find it is an abandoned police station. Back to the phone book and another clerk. We head to the laundry on Northern Lights Blvd. We cannot find it either so I ask at a liquor store only to find that it is just across the street hidden behind the shopping center and labeled cleaners. A wonderful laundry, it takes us about as long to do the wash and dry as it did to find the place. We put the clean clothes away and decide to treat ourselves to the best pizza in Anchorage. Back past the laundry we go to Olympia Pizza on Spenard. The wait is long but the pizza is delicious. I even have four pieces left over to take home for future breakfasts.

 

Day 42 - June 22, 1998 - Milepost 5362 - Anchorage, AK

(Bert) Early in the morning I bird Potter’s Marsh, my favorite spot in Anchorage. I discover a Peregrine Falcon, a bird rare enough here to deserve mention on Anchorage’s rare-bird-alert hotline. After shopping with Shari at her favorite grocery store, Fred Meyer, I bury myself into John Grisham’s The Partner and don’t emerge until I turn the last page. Looking up I discover the whole day has passed, leaving me just enough time to write this short journal.

(Shari) This is a picture perfect day with clear blue skies and the mountains surrounding Anchorage appear to have a fresh sprinkling of snow on them. We shop at Fred Meyer’s on Muldoon Road, not too far from our camp. This is the first really large grocery store we have been in since Edmonton and everything looks tempting. I am dismayed that a gallon of skim milk costs $3.48. Bananas are 89 cents per lb. and apples are $1.99 per lb. But sweet bing cherries are advertised at only $1.28 per lb. I find some boneless chicken thighs and legs for $1.79 per lb. Coca Cola is $6.45 for 24 cans, a good price. Frozen orange juice is 79 cents a can, same as it is at home. Without going into my whole shopping list, my gut reaction to the total bill is 30% higher than it would be in Texas. We cram our groceries into a cupboard I still think is too small and have some lunch. I decide to use up some things that are taking up room in the cabinet and make a key lime pie and chocolate chip cookies. Bert does not complain and remarks that fresh cookies are so much better than ones with freezer burn. He thinks he is so cute. Tonight I intend to harvest three of the tomatoes on the tomato plant that I have nurtured since leaving Texas and Bert has lugged out every day and lugged in every night. The plant looks healthy in spite of its abuse and has 24 cherry tomatoes in varying sizes.

 

Day 43 - June 23, 1998 - Milepost 5532 (170 today) - Johnson Lake, AK

(Shari) "Is the tide going out or coming in?" Bert asks. I wonder that myself until I see the mud flats, valleys and canyons still glistening from water that had recently coated them. If the tide consistently acted upon the mud every day in the same way, I wonder if another Bryce, Zion or Grand Canyon would form. Mountain waterfalls cascade so close to the highway that they say goodbye with their spray before disappearing under the pavement. Thick fields of lupine similar to Texas bluebonnets but about twice the size, lift their long necks of blue and white petals to worship the sunny day. Green meadows and marshes reach up to snow-covered peaks. At Turnagain Pass T-shirted children run to play in the snow that remains in the cracks and crevices of the hillsides. At the Cooper Landing boat launch we stop to meet Ed and Ruth Phallan, a fellow RV-Talk news group participant on the Internet. The two are camp hosts at that location and I tell you the state of Alaska is getting their money’s worth with them. Ed is diligent in collecting the $5.00 boat launch and parking fee and beautifying the grounds. Ruth is extremely talented and has painted the outsides of 5-gal. buckets with various flowers, filled the buckets with sand and set them out in strategic places to collect used cigarette butts. They are the envy of other Alaskan camp hosts since they have a cabin for their use with electricity plus a million-dollar view in all directions. They give us a warm welcome, invite us to look around and to sit on their porch to soak up the sun and enjoy the scenery. I met Ed on the Internet last December. We had never seen each other but became friends through our mutual interest in RV’s and Alaska. They had their house for sale the same time we did. Theirs has sold, but ours is still on the market. A friend of Ed’s gave him a little statue of St. Joseph that he buried in his front lawn. Just two days later his house had a contract. He saved that little statue, carted it all the way up to Alaska and presented it to me to help me sell our house as well. This is Ed Phallan - a truly friendly guy. Before we know it, we have spent the better part of three hours chatting as though we had known each other for years. We finally break away from their wonderful home and head for Johnson Lake. When we left Don and Jean this morning - they stayed in Anchorage to get Don’s broken tooth fixed - we said it was only 150 miles to Johnson Lake and should take less than four hours to get there. We arrive eight hours later and find only four sites vacant. Our other Internet friends (camp hosts here) have gone to Anchorage for their son’s birthday. Our first face to face meeting with them will have to wait until tomorrow.

(Bert) Anchorage does not appear to be a Pacific Ocean port. Approaching from the north or the east, Anchorage seems like a heartland city. Yet it borders on a narrow finger of water called Cook’s Inlet which opens southward, a cornucopia spilling into the Gulf of Alaska and thence, the Pacific Ocean. Hugging the coast line, Highway 1 takes us out of Anchorage this morning. We stop at Beluga Point in search of Beluga Whales and Mountain Goats. Finding neither, we round the corner, see lots of stopped traffic and discover the source of interest: a flock of goats pitched on the steep slopes and entertaining onlookers. We are at the entrance to Turnagain Arm, a swallow, turbulent muddy arm of Cook’s Inlet. Had a bridge been extended across Turnagain, we could traverse it in a mile. Yet the road follows the scenic route at water’s edge and we travel nearly a hundred miles instead. This is a scene that would delight a model railroad builder’s fancy: a railroad track and parallel highway wedged between sea and mountain, snow-capped peaks, minute waterfalls tumbling over rocky cliffs, white streams racing to sea. Bald Eagles soar at the tops of cliffs, others wing gracefully across the churning water and still others stand mired in mud not yet covered by the rapidly changing tides. At its wrist, Turnagain Arm calms to broad grassy marshes, spiked with trunks of dead trees and patches of open pools. The marsh dries into fields of luscious lavender lupine, looking like propped up bottle brushes in ten thousand green vases. Near Portage Glacier where snow drips down mountains to meet the shore, we make a hard right turn and drive the opposite shore of Turnagain past still ponds artfully decorated with Yellow Pondlily. A sign welcomes us to the Kenai Peninsula and we head inland, climbing swiftly on a broad smooth three-lane highway that is worlds’ better than the construction plagued torture we endured two years ago. We climb to Turnagain Pass, a bowl-shaped basin surrounded by rounded mountains, and stop for lunch. While Shari prepares sandwiches, I explore. I am a butterfly novice, but with detailed notes I can identify most species later in my field guide. This time I come up with a surprise: a striking, chocolate brown butterfly with yellow, orange and black parallel bands spreading outward from its thorax and a pair of orange "eyes" with black "pupils" positioned on the forward wing. Finding this Milbert’s Tortoiseshell is unexpected since my field guide says it is in the "Far North except Alaska." Either I have discovered a rarity or the book is wrong.

 

Day 44 - June 24, 1998 - Milepost 5532 - Clam Gulch, AK

(Shari) I MET SALLY! Sally is a favorite on my Internet RV Talk group. She and her husband Dave are camp hosts here at Johnson Lake State Park. They spent the winter in Alaska and through her posts we have gotten a first hand glimpse of what an Alaskan winter is like. She is a very good writer and I know I felt as if I were experiencing Alaska with her as I read her posts. Anyway she came around on her rounds of the campground last night, upon her return from Anchorage for her son’s birthday and knocked on our door. I must tell you she talks just like she writes, only it is better. In person you get the hand motions, body language, head nodding etc. that underscore her stories. Dave says - yes, Virtual Dave exists - he must remove wine glasses and breakables away from her when she gets going. She is as cute as a button and about as small. She has short brown hair, twinkling eyes, a constant smile and a big warm heart that says welcome to everyone she meets. We talked a good long time as if we knew her forever - I guess we have known her through her posts - and as she said goodbye, she offered her clam shovels for us to borrow on today’s outing. Clamming is one of the main reasons I drove all the way up here. It is a hoot and no place is it as good as in Alaska. In fact, there are only eight known major concentrations of Razor Clams on the Pacific Coast and four of those are in Alaska. We drive to Clam Gulch, probably the most popular clamming location, and park our car on the beach. Luckily we have four-wheel drive as the sand is soft and even then, Bert has fears of getting stuck. We gather our buckets, gloves - Bert has rubber gloves while I am trying those silvery glove liners - and shovels and head out to the receding water’s edge. Clams can be dug during any minus tide of two feet or lower but the lower the better. Our tide this morning at 10:30 a.m. is -4.8. The life cycle of a clam is rather bizarre. It spends its whole life in that one spot and feeds on the plankton found on the sandy tidal beach. Clams are ready for harvest in about 4 to 5 years after their formation and can live to about 14 to 18 years. That is if some tourist or local has not dug them up first. And they get dug up by the thousands each and every clamming day. Luckily the female clam releases 5 to 15 million eggs each year when the waters reach a warm 55 degrees or more (usually in July or August). So here we are, dressed in fashionable clamming outerwear of scruffy jeans and rubber boots, on a sunny clear morning, digging holes in the sand with our shovels. We look for dime size dimples in the sand and then place our shovel on the ocean side of the hole and dig. It takes us awhile to get the hang of it and we slice off quite a few of the clams’ necks or break their shells to smithereens or miss them all together, but we finally reach our limit of 60 clams each and head home to the real work of cleaning. I cannot believe it but Sally comes on over and spends the next two hours helping us clean those messy things. And being a vegetarian, she does not even eat them. What a sweetheart that girl is! Don and Jean drive in from Anchorage about 5 p.m. and we all sit down for a fried clam dinner on the picnic table outside. The clams are delicious and Don and Jean are anxious to go clamming with us tomorrow.

(Bert) Shari’s so excited that she effervesces bubbles of joy. Hard for others to comprehend, Shari’s main goal in visiting Alaska is to dig for clams. Catching salmon is high on the list, but clamming is number 1. We start an hour before low tide, today -4.8 ft., an uncommonly severe negative tide. The beach at Clam Gulch extends seaward for hundreds of feet beyond its normal limits, exposing Cook Inlet’s sandy bottom and its denizens to the sea air. At the shoreline where the saltwater breaks gently, sea stars, hermit crabs, whelks, acorn barnacles and 12-in. Giant Green Anemones are exposed. But our game is the Razor Clam, a meaty delicacy encased in a slim elongated brown shell, typically 4 to 6 in. long, 1.5 to 2.5 in. wide and 0.5 in. thick. To find them, we look for dime sized dimples in the wet sand, then dig with a spade shaped shovel that curves outward near its tip. Last time we clammed, I did most of the digging. Today Shari has her own shovel and bucket. She starts apprehensively at first, digging gingerly and discovers only more sand lying below the sand she’s already excavated. She moves to another dimple and again misses the clam presumably lying in wait below. After a few more clamless holes, Shari remarks, "It’s going to be a long day." Then I reclaim a clam and she quickly gets one also. The hunt is on! We start to hone our clamming skills and our retrieval rate improves. But mostly, we lose all concern for staying clean and soon are miring in the wet sand and occasional layer of mud: our pants wet and muddy, our coat sleeves soiled and our rubber boots overflowing with water and sand. I find my best success when I remove the first shovel full or two and then continue digging with my bare hands: tough on the fingertips but great on dexterity. Twelve to 18 in. below the surface, I can feel the tip of a clam moving away from me. The clam digs almost as fast as I and when it - they are neither he nor she clams, they’re hermaphrodites - is close enough for me to pinch its shell, I pull slowly and with great strength. If I have a good grip I pull the clam out; if not, the clam wins the tug-of-war. In two hours we reach our legal limit: 60 clams each. Exhausted, we look around the beach and see hundreds of other clam diggers hard at it.

 

Day 45 - June 25, 1998 - Milepost 5532 - Clam Gulch, AK

(Bert) "This is about as dirty as I’ve been in my adult life," confesses Jean as we return from a morning of clamming. Her clothes are caked with wet mud and sand; her calf-length boots bulge with globs of what had been ocean bottom. But Jean’s face shines with the delight of a kid’s smile on a bright summer vacation morning. Joining us today on our second day of clamming, Don and Jean share their first adventure at this messy sport. The spade Don brought from home breaks at its first work of digging the heavy wet sand. Shovel deprived, Don suggests to Jean that they share in the digging. Don wields the new shovel he purchased yesterday and Jean retrieves the clams. In their corner of the beach, we hear the constant banter of a vocal husband-wife team trying to master the art of clamming. "There’s one; dig over there." "I see it; quick, grab it." "Missed it." "Aw, Jean!" "There’s another, quick move." "Faster!" "Wow, a one pounder." Meanwhile Shari and I are raking in the clams. This morning I put the Pathfinder in four-wheel drive and plowed through the deep sand at the beach entrance, then drove almost a mile along the beach to clam at a less hunted mudflat. The tactic works and Shari and I are reaping larger clams - sometimes two, three or even four per hole - at a faster rate. We’ve also gotten our technique improved to digging whole clams, with only a few smashed or cut. When we finish our quota, we help Don and Jean get their limit. As we exit the beach, we carry with us 240 clams, an amazing testament to the natural abundance still left in Alaska. Near the highway a shack advertises clam cleaning services: one would clean the 240 for $100; her competitor

charges $120. Having cleaned clams before, Shari and I remark that neither of us would be willing to do the work that cheaply. But for these two days, we’ll enjoy cleaning our own. Don and I take our buckets to the campground water pump and wash the sand from our catch, then let them sit in the ice water until we’ve taken showers and eaten lunch. Next Shari and Jean boil water and expose the clams to the heat just long enough to make it easy to pry them from their shells. This time we move our buckets of shelled clams to Sally’s picnic table and all five of us work together. It reminds me of my grandmother’s quilting bees, everyone sitting in a circle of nonstop conversation. Lots of talk centers around a gory description of the clams’ entails and we try to imagine to what use the various body organs were put: most of them have a sexual appearance, but probably are gastronomic in usage. Four of them work with scissors, cutting away unappetizing portions, while I clean the meaty portions and separate the more tender foot - to be used for deep frying or seafood salads - from the body - to be used for clam chowder. By 5 p.m. we finish, a hard day’s work. Last night we dined on fried clams; tonight it is "Clam Shari," her own concoction of a clam version of shrimp scampi. For dessert we meet around the campfire with Don and Jean, Sally and Dave, and sample Don’s homemade wine, Jean’s creamy ice cream and Shari’s marshmallow-chocolate-graham cracker s’ mores.

(Shari) We are off to the clam beach again today with Don and Jean. This time Bert drives the bumpy, sandy beach about a mile and parks the car. We gather for the "Before Clamming" pictures - clothes clean and buckets empty - and head out onto the wet sand. At first I find the sand too wet and all the result I have is wet jeans and dirty hands. Finally I get the rhythm. This area of the beach has bigger clams, closer together and found almost on the surface. I get lazy and notice that I can see the tip of the clam neck protruding above the sand. I only have to dig one shovel full, kneel down and reach in to claim my prize. This is easier today. I walk to where Don and Jean are "clamming" and hear "Donald, Over here." "Jean, get out of the way, I am losing it." I wonder if they are having a good time. They assure me they are having a ball. I continue digging my holes and pulling out my clams until I have 66 clams in my pail. Oh, Oh! I can only have 60 so I take six over to Don and Jean to add to their bucket. Bert and I finish helping them get their limit and we head back to the car for the "After Clamming" pictures - clothes dirty and buckets full. Jean remarks, "I do not think I have been this dirty in all of my adult life." Don says now the afternoon is free time. Free time nothing! Now the real work begins with the cleaning. Bert and Don rinse the sand from our 240 clams in the cold running water of the outdoor pump. After a shower and some lunch we take the clams to Don and Jean’s and pour boiling water over the clams. The hot water shocks the clams into opening and Jean and I separate the clam from its shell. We then take our clams over to Sally and Dave’s where Sally again helps us clean. Using a scissors, we first cut off the black tip of the neck. Then we cut along the zipper-like part and through one of the channels in the neck. The tender meaty foot is cut from the main body. After cutting the glunky center stuff away, one piece is ready for washing. The foot is cleaned of its gross material and it too is ready for washing. Bert washes and Sally, Don, Jean, and I do the cutting. Two hours later, remarking often why we dug so many, we are finally done with the cleaning process. I remark to Bert that if I had to go clamming again tomorrow it would be more like work and less like fun. Tonight’s supper is, you guessed it, clams. We later sit around the camp fire drinking wine, eating s’ mores and ice cream that Jean has to finish to make room for today’s catch of clams and getting to know Dave and Sally better.

 

Day 46 - June 26, 1998 - Milepost 5532 - J ohnson Lake, AK

(Shari) I must have been exhausted since I slept straight through the night until 10 a.m. this morning. After writing two journal entries, we eat a brunch of sourdough pancakes from the starter given me by the cook at Sourdough Campground in Tok. They are delicious and I can hardly wait until I have electricity to make some bread. We gather up Don and Jean and Sally and drive to town - Soldotna - some 16 miles north. There we drop Sally off at the laundry while we run errands. First it is to Fred Meyer’s - called Freddies by the locals - and Don and I spend more than 45 minutes in the fishing department. A fruitful 45 minutes later, we each walk out with a pair of hip waders, on sale for $17.99. I also bought some lures like Dave’s. I want to follow in Dave and Sally’s footsteps when those reds come in. I will breathe when they do and sneeze when they do and nod my head when they nod theirs. Anything to get those yummy delicious morsels of fresh red fish! We stop at the post office to fetch our mail and retrieve Sally from the wash house. It is back to Freddy’s for some last minute groceries and our photographs. As we drop Sally and her wash at their 5th wheel, Dave comes out and hands me a package of smoked salmon. I am very tempted to hide the package in my shirt but I figure Dave will ask Don how the fish was and I will get caught at not sharing. So I dutifully hand over one of the precious pieces of smoked meat. It is still warm from the smoker and Bert and I divide it up for supper. It is the most wonderful thing I have tasted on this trip. We then follow Dave and Sally’s Freightliner to Kenai and a coffee house called Veronica’s. Nathan Davis is performing there this evening and after listening to the songs he has written himself, I judge him to be too good for such a small place. But since he is only 22 years old, he probably needs the performing practice and Veronica’s clientele is given a treat as they sip their gourmet coffees and lattes.

(Bert) Travel invites serendipity. So it is this evening when we find the six of us seated around an antique table sipping latte and mocha. The scene is Veronicas’s, a cozy coffee house located in the heart of Kenai’s historic district. In 1791 Kenai, like many other coastal towns along the peninsula, was founded by Russian immigrants. The farmhouse where we sit tonight was built from hand hewn logs - the beams still show on inside walls - by John Oskolkoff in 1918. In 1945 it became the Dolchok home, but now it’s Veronica’s. The entertainment is Nathan Davis: Sally and Dave’s son, on whose invitation we found this delightful nook. The blues pour forth from Nathan’s tenor voice and, for a young man in his early 20s, he instills a powerful force in his singing. Head bowed over his 6-string guitar and alternately a 12-string Yamaha, Nathan shuts his eyes and lets the music pour forth. Sally took him clothes shopping for his birthday; Nathan’s choice fits his gig: from his black Florsheims; baggy black pinstripe trousers fit for an 1890s banker; black shirt rolled at the cuffs, a flowery embroidery edging button holes buttoned to the top; to his black bowler derby with its red feather brush. The music is unfamiliar, from an era where my ears tuned in another direction, but Sally identifies a few for us including one from The Grateful Dead, Nathan’s favorite. But familiar or not, the music fills the small coffeehouse with warmth matching the cups we circle in our hands. Friends, fellow entertainers, others his age - not ours - flow in and out. It seems he is the best entertainment in town and other performers stop in to hear him before moving to their jobs tonight. When we leave a little past 10, the evening air has chilled. We drive a couple blocks to watch the Kenai River meet Cook’s

Inlet and we watch for Beluga Whales, but quit quickly after standing coldly in the sea breeze. On the way back to Johnson Lake we encounter a moose eating grass beside the road; Jean snaps a photo. Then near 11 p.m. we see two more on the opposite side; one remains, the other trots clumsily into the woods, bringing our Alaskan night to a close.

 

Day 47 - June 27, 1998 - Milepost 5600 (68 today) - Homer Spit, AK

(Shari) We picked Land’s End RV Park in Homer for its scenery. Its management is unyielding in its policy of site reservations and assignations. We find that we must move every night of our 5-day stay. If the management operated like other systems with first in, first out we would have no problems. However, they assign each site when reserved, then nevermore to be changed. Stupid. So someone has our site tomorrow night and we must move to an empty unassigned site etc., etc. on the following nights. Why not put tomorrow night’s person in our tomorrow night’s spot? I have no idea. But that is how it is and that is how it must remain. In addition, although a phone jack is clearly visible and accessible, we are told, "There are no e-mail facilities." So here we are parked in tonight’s spot #3, drinking in the fantastic view. Homer is a small maritime community on the shores of Kachemak Bay, where the road ends and the sea begins. We are literally at land’s end on the spit - a natural jetty of sorts sticking several miles out into the bay. Land’s End has the only campsite I have ever been where the view changes while you sit still. Sea Otters frolic 5 ft. from shore. Sailboats lazily meander westward. Motorized fishing boats come in with the tide and big barges leave the safety of the harbor on their way to the ocean. Across the bay the snow-capped mountains loom skyward. At first they are shrouded in a misty translucent haze that makes them appear painted on a large canvas. As the sun moves westward the contours, trees and meadows take shape. I watch them change color as day barely releases its grip into night and the snow on the peaks to my left reveal a baby pink complexion and the ones on my right show blue.

(Bert) Homer Spit shows two faces. The first face is one of great grandeur. Homer is a small town at the very end of the Kenai Peninsula; the Spit is a very narrow treeless isthmus extending from Homer into Kachemak Bay for 4.5 miles. From our campsite at Land’s End RV park - positioned at the very tip of the spit - our motorhome is pointed straight to sea, a stone’s throw away. I don’t recall another site where we could see such changing scenery through our front windows. Yes, some places - notably Maclaren River - have had great static views, but on Homer Spit we see a dynamic view. A couple miles from us, rising from Kachemak Bay, a line of snow capped mountains change colors throughout the day: hazy gray blue when the sea air is heavy with water, forest green in bright sunlight, pink at sunset. Glaciers bank the mountains to our left and snow covered volcanic cones form those on the right. Directly in front of us the sea is ever changing. A Harbor Seal pokes his nose above the surface near the shoreline; further out a Sea Otter plays: rolling, diving and floating on his back. A steady procession of seabirds stream by: Black-legged Kittiwakes with ends of white wings dipped in black ink; thousands of Common Murres dressed like penguins, but shaped like fat torpedoes and flying in long ribbons just inches above the water; Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels fluttering like dark butterflies above the rippling waves. I even catch sight of a 15-ft. Orca humping in and out of water and dressed in pitch black with a prominent dorsal fin. Colorful sailboats compete in a regatta; fishing boats chug past to deeper water only to return six hours later with their limit of halibut. This is the beautiful face of Homer Spit; tomorrow I’ll describe the other face.

 

Day 48 - June 28, 1998 - Milepost 5600 - Homer Spit, AK

(Bert) Homer Spit has a second face, one less pretty. Born as a coal mining town around the turn of the century, Homer and the Spit still retain a frontier town character. Although rustic and charming might be apt descriptors, so would dumpy and cluttered. With recently finished modern roads connecting Homer to Anchorage, the area has become a haven for fishermen and tourists. Growth has overrun planning. Shacks have been converted to shops, parking is an afterthought, the local fishing hole is just that - a hole. A timber shipping operation litters the area adjacent to the tourist attractions, abandoned boats and ships perch forlornly on gravel beds. A police car, the first I’ve seen, just drove past our motorhome. I hope he catches the thief that stole Don’s fishing tackle box and the one that tested the locks on our motorhome this afternoon while Shari was sitting inside. The management of Land’s End seems to think more of their convenience than their customers when they post signs saying "No E-mail" and ask us to move our RV each night for four nights, rather than adjusting their assignment book. Still some of the residents are gracious - like the friendly people at Faith Lutheran Church this morning and the helpful staff at Land’s End Motel that spent more than a half-hour helping me get a phone line to send e-mail. Homer Spit has two faces; I prefer looking at the pretty one and try to ignore the other.

 

(Shari) Pastor Neels of Faith Lutheran Church in Homer starts me thinking. Why do I come to church? What is a sin? What do Jeffery Dahlmer, King David, Peter and the woman who led a sinful life have in common? Is it easier to compare yourself to Jeffery Dahlmer or God? Some answers are easy and some are disturbing, but a good sermon should make one think. Pastor Neels has a very comfortable style of delivery and I find myself attuned to his words the full time. His congregation is friendly and accustomed to many visitors in the summer. We return from church and move RTENT to spot #32, a $2.00 less expensive beach view site. As Bert joins a park naturalist for an hour birding tour, I make a cake and clam salad. I hear and feel something on the left side of the motorhome and think Bert is back already. However I notice that a young man is exiting the space between RTENT and our neighbor. What a shame to think someone was trying to get at our stuff in the basement compartments! Later when I ask Don if he caught any fish he said, "Didn’t Jean tell you? My tackle box was stolen." He had been fishing at the "hole" and while he fished someone took off with his tackle box. That just makes me sick to think belongings are not safe in broad daylight with people all around. We talk about the state of affairs as we walk to The Boardwalk, Fish and Chips. Fried Halibut for two with french fries and one side order of coleslaw and one beer cost $20.94. The portions are small and we exit still on the hungry side. Groceries may be 20% to 30% more expensive than at home but restaurant meals are double. This meal was less filling than one at Long John Silver’s. Hopefully we can catch our own Halibut on our fishing charter Tuesday.

 

Day 49 - June 29, 1998 - Milepost 5600 - Homer Spit, AK

(Shari) Well, I finally got my 25-lb. halibut. But more on that later. First I have to tell you about Jessie and the two Joey’s. This afternoon, I wanted to show Don and Jean how fishing boats are launched at Anchor Point, a village 20 miles north of Homer. On the way we stop at the Homer overlook to enjoy a panoramic view of Kachemak Bay. Far in the distance, the sea and sky meet, but we are hard-pressed to define the boundary. Water, land, clouds, mountains are painted with a surrealist brush dipped in shades of blue and gray and white. Boats look like Maddie’s bath tub toys and the distance to the mountains across the bay appears swimable. When we arrive at Anchor Point, Don and I notice two attractive women - Joey and Jessie, in their late twenties - who need help getting their boat to shore. Let me point out: they do not need help because they are of the fairer sex, but because everyone needs help moving their boats here at Anchor Point. Here’s where the second Joey comes in. When I snap his picture, he asks, "If that picture turns out, will you send it to me?" Joey Allred operates Tractor Factor Boat Launch, a concessionaire for the state of Alaska. He does this 24 hours a day for four months and works as a carpenter the rest of the year. His rates are printed on a sign, $32 in and out - but $50 for a tow. His busy time starts July 1 when the corridor around the Anchor River is opened to salmon fishing. The Anchor River has an early run of King Salmon and he expects the second of the early runs to be really hopping by Wednesday. Because the sand under the shoreline water will sink even a four-wheel drive truck, Joey uses a huge tractor, as big as the ones we see bulldozing ground on highway construction. I find this system very amusing to watch. Far out at sea, Joey #1 and Jessie hold a big # 44 on a 2-ft. square sign. This alerts Joey Allred’s team to hook up the corresponding trailer to their tractor and drive into position to bring in the boat. They drive across the wide beach and into the bay until more than half of the tractor tires are submerged. Then boat, people, fish and all are driven up the beach and deposited at the parking lot. Don and I walk over to the boat and strike up a conversation with the women. We find out that they are on vacation this week and one of them works for the National Park Service. The taller woman - I think she’s Joey - owns the boat: four years old, but looks well cared for, clean, with no dirt or tears in the carpeted bottom. It looks as if no dirty fish ever touched the insides of that boat, but today we see four large halibuts in an ice chest. One thing leads to another and we end up with one of their halibut in our plastic bag - a gift for us less fortunate fishers. Back at the Homer public cleaning tables, Bert and Don clean the beauty. It is fish for supper tonight.

(Bert) Ermine suggests, "When you go to Alaska, you should really take along two of everything." While that may be an overstatement, I sure wish I had brought along my broken Canon camera body so that I could now scavenge for parts. Yesterday, just as I finished photographing a Bald Eagle, the take-up spool on my camera jammed. Unable to rewind the film, I decided to take it to a photo shop. I arrive at 8 a.m. hoping they open early so that I can catch today’s 9 a.m. boat trip. No such luck. Shortly after 9 the young lady at Eagle Photo hands me my rewound film, but the take-up spool is broken and will need to be replaced. Today’s pelagic trip can be rescheduled for Wednesday, but my camera can’t be fixed until we return to Anchorage. I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to photograph puffins this trip. In the afternoon we drive to Anchor Point, the most westerly highway point in North America. Our view across Cook’s Inlet is of four volcanoes. Mt. Augustine, the smallest, is an island rising 4,025 ft. from the water. The tallest is Mt. Redoubt, a snow-covered peak climaxing at 10,177 ft. The four are part of the Pacific Rim "Ring of Fire," comprising 300 volcanoes in total. On the beach we watch Bald Eagles competing with Glaucous-winged Gulls over fish remnants. After Don and Shari lose interest in the eagles, they start talking to fishermen returning with their catch. Shari evokes her rule #4 of fishing and soon is the proud recipient of a 20-lb. halibut, fresh from the sea. As always, it’s my job to clean the fish, but with halibut it’s an easy task. Halibut is a bottom feeder, shaped like flounder with two eyes protruding on the olive-brown upper surface and none on the milk white lower side. To clean it I cut down the center of the flat surface, then separate the meat of each side from the strong bone cage, flip the fish over and repeat the process. Don then separates the quarters from the fish’s tough skin. We end up with four large fillets weighing more than two lbs. a piece. First course this evening is clam chowder from our Clam Gulch clams; our entre is fresh blackened halibut, served at Shari’s kitchen.

 

Day 50 - June 30, 1998 - Milepost 5600 - Homer Spit, AK

(Shari) Don is singing, "A fishing we will go. A fishing we will go. Hi, Ho, the dairy oh. A fishing we will go." He is as happy as a clam (no pun intended). It is 5:30 in the morning and anyone acquainted with my habits, knows that I do not willingly get up this early. I am ready to pop Don in the mouth to shut him up, but then remember I am going fishing too. We are to take Rainbow’s half day charter ($80 each and the only half day fishing trip in Homer) and I do not think I will need the Dramamine I took earlier because the sea is as calm as glass. Our 50-ft. boat travels for about 90 minutes to the halibut beds not far from the shores of Seldovia. John, the captain’s helper, baits my hook with a piece of squid head and a herring head. The hook is attached to a 2-lb. weight and I throw it over the side, my line goes down 200 ft. to the bottom. Almost immediately I yell, "Fish on." I reel and reel and reel and reel and reel. Two hundred feet down is fast. Two hundred feet up is slow. There below the surface of the clear water, I see a flounder like fish, a halibut on my hook. By now every one of my fellow fishers are yelling "Fish on" and John and the captain are kept busy unhooking, baiting and untangling lines for the remainder of the morning. My first halibut, the first fish of the day caught in less than five minutes of arriving, is about 20 lbs. according to John. I decide to throw it back and gamble on bigger ones later. Not disappointed, I find myself throwing more large fish than I care to count back into the cold waters of the bay. The ocean waters where our boat is anchored are teaming with fish and everyone not only limits out, two fish each, but has the luxury of throwing the small ones back. That is if you can call 20 lbs. small. John or the captain marks each individual’s fish with an identifying gash. I am told to remember "one on the tail." John cleans and filets the fish on the trip back and all the fish with one knife slit on the tail belong to Bert and me. We have been productive and I guess our four fish average 25 lbs. each, with at least 12 lbs. of edible meat. Now what does one do with 16 filets or 48 lbs. of halibut in a motorhome? I store three filets in the refrigerator for the next three nights’ dinner and cram the remainder in the small freezer along with the clams from last week. It has been a fun day and is topped off with delicious beer battered fried fish tonight for supper. But only after I take a well-deserved 4-hour nap.

(Bert) Shari told me she wanted to get up at 5 a.m., so when her alarm went off at 4:30 I was surprised. Now she tells me I should get up and wake her again at 5. In our motorhome, elbows rub if two try using the bathroom/dressing area at the same time. I am elected to get ready first, so Shari can get a few extra winks. Ermine, Don and Jean meet us at the car to drive together to the boat dock where we board the 50-ft. M/V Sizzler departing at 6. Captain Art - a 26-year veteran of Alaska, formerly from LA - collects our tickets. First Mate John - a young man recently from New Jersey - gets 17 short, stout fishing rods ready by adding 2-lb. lead weights and wickedly looking big hooks attached to 120-lb. cord and 30-lb. fish line. The Sizzler trolls out of Homer Spit harbor and into Kachemak Bay. The others seem more intent on coffee and conversation around tables in the galley, but I prefer to sit up in the Captain’s cabin and watch the wildlife pass as we cruise along the coast past Seldovia. As the boat approaches Marbled Murrelets dressed in their summer browns, the small birds rotate their wings and somersault below the surface, using their wings to swim for food. I can see the bright orange parrot-like bills of Tufted Puffins hundreds of yards away and, when closer, I can make out the feathered plumes decorating their crowns. Sea Otters float on their backs as if the sea was a soft lounge chair. The cabin is filled with electronic gadgetry: a sea thermometer measures 53 degrees (28 in winter); our depth is 400 ft.; from our position in Kachemak Bay, Texas is closer (2,600 nautical miles) than the end of the Alaskan Aleutian chain (2,800) and Russia is not far over the horizon (630). After 90 minutes the sea bottom rises to a 200-ft. depth and Captain Art drops anchor. John hands us reels and we let our lines spool out. No sooner do the lead weights hit bottom than the fish strike our octopus and herring bait. Shari’s excitement index climbs 9 points and her shrieks carry across the boat. But reeling in a 20 to 25-lb. halibut is like pulling in a big boot, open side up. Pulling in seven or eight of these soon becomes tiring. We keep the biggest - two each - and John marks ours "one slash on the tail," to differentiate other markings from accompanying fishermen. Our fishing activity attracts pelagic birds and I am most interested in those I identify as Northern Fulmars. Captain Art calls them Sooty Shearwaters and, in between fish baiting and unhooking, he and I dispute the id. I list five reasons I think it is fulmars, but he defers to a later look at a book. As we cruise home he checks his field guide and agrees with me. Then he asks me not to mention it to Captain Jack, his boss and pilot of tomorrow’s narrated nature cruise.

 

Day 51 - July 1, 1998 - Milepost 5600 - Homer Spit, AK

(Bert) The roof explodes skyward a hundred feet with only the accompanying sound of rushing wind. Hundreds of frightened gulls and kittiwakes spring from their perches, filling the air with flapping wings. Then black smoke funnels out of the building on shore and within seconds a thousand foot plume points to the end of Homer Spit. From our position on the forward deck of the Rainbow Connection, Jim and I can hear Captain Jack exclaim, "It’s the fish processing plant!" He accelerates his boat to clear the harbor exit, then slows so we can get a closer look of the smoking building. College kids scurry away from their tents pitched between the Icicle Seafoods plant and the gravel embankment leading to water’s edge, just as flames flash through the pitch black smoke. The captain must share our apprehension at the burst of smoke and flame and he guns the engine to increase our distance from the threat. In front of us the Coast Guard ship comes to attention and its personnel jump to undock the ship and get it out of harm’s way. A half minute later we round the tip of Homer Spit and pass directly beneath the blackened sky. Our next breath is a raw one that irritates nasal passages and warns us this is no ordinary smoke. Jim shouts, "That’s ammonia." From the loudspeaker, Captain Jack announces to his three dozen passengers, "Hold your breaths until we get through." A minute later we are clear, but we can see the fire is out of control and we are the last to exit the harbor before it is shut down. It’s 11 a.m. and we are on the second leg of the Natural History Tour offered by Rainbow Tours. Captain Jack has trouble getting us to turn our attention to the boat tour while our minds are still back on shore. Earlier this morning we visited Gull Island and were treated to bird’s eye views of nesting Tufted Puffins, Red-faced Cormorants and 6,000-7,000 Common Murres. While looking at the thousands of nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Jim zeroes in on one with red-orange legs. For me, he points in the general direction of one of the rock faces of the miniature island. I see the odd bird too and I turn to get Ginger’s attention but she is intent on answering another passenger’s question. Meanwhile the boat passes the point and by the time we double back none of us can relocate the bird. Digging through our bird books, we are sure the rarity is a Red-legged Kittiwake, only accidentally found this far south in Alaska and a new life bird for both Jim and me. Throughout the boat trip we pick up other exciting species - Aleutian Tern, Common Eider, Horned Puffin - and get incredible close views of colonies of Sea Otters with half-grown pups nestled on their floating mothers’ bellies. In transit we get reports via shortwave and learn that Homer Spit has been evacuated. I wonder what Shari and the others have done. Did they back out their motorhomes and hook up the cars our just leave everything on the beach? We all speculate on the damage to the plant and the high probability that someone was hurt or even killed in the explosion. Captain Jack comments on the town’s dependence on the fish processing plant for a major source of income as it is the repository for all the fishermen in the Kachemak Bay area. Unable to return to the closed port, we continue on our way to Seldovia.

(Shari) I do not even know there is something wrong until I hear the sirens. Their eery shriek keeps coming closer and closer and I hear more than just one or two. I put on my shoes and go out the door to see what is causing all of the commotion. People are standing a few hundred feet from RTENT and watching a cloud of smoke rise and blow away from the area out into the bay. Two young women tell us the Icicle Fish Processing Plant is on fire. They are summer employees and had just been evacuated from the plant because of an ammonia leak and now are worried about their belongings. Next to the burning plant, everything they own is in a tent: their home for the summer. A pickup truck with a flashing yellow light stops and tells us to get into our motorhomes and to close all the doors and windows, because the cloud of smoke contains ammonia. He says if the wind shifts, we need to evacuate. The road is closed so we must either walk, bike or use a four-wheel drive vehicle. I tell Jean about the fire and the danger. As I return to RTENT, I decide to evacuate now. If the wind shifts, it will be too late. I am wondering if I should take the car or walk. As I start to gather my things and lock RTENT, another truck with a flashing light tells us that they are evacuating the whole Homer Spit area. That settles it, I am taking the car. By this time Ermine has seen me with my purse and has put her Chihuahua, Nina, in a dog carrier and both get into the car. I drive to Don and Jean’s and tell them we are evacuating. By this time I am extremely hyper and all sorts of disastrous scenarios are running through my mind. It looks like the cloud of smoke is changing direction and crossing the road. Don wants to gather this and that. Ermine says hurry and I yell, "Let’s go. NOW!" I have never used four-wheel drive, but it is amazing what one can do under fire. I move the gear shifts and in no time I am ready to drive on the rocky beach. I say a little prayer to see me through this ordeal and ask Don to look for a place to get back up onto the road. Finally about a mile down the beach, we see a place to exit, but a small car is already stuck and blocking our way. Don gets out and moves a big rock from the path. I depress the accelerator and up the bank we go. Now we are in bumper to bumper traffic that thankfully slowly moves down the spit. At this point I still think the firefighters will get the fire out in a couple of hours and then we all can go back home and go about our business. As the afternoon progresses, we realize that we may be stuck in town until tomorrow. Bert and Jim left early this morning and I am assuming they do not even know of the excitement. They may have to spend the night in Seldovia across the bay. We dawdle the day, shopping, eating lunch, drinking coffee and listening to radio reports on the situation.

(Bert) After hiking for two hours through the virgin forests behind Seldovia, we return to the harbor at 3 p.m. to hear the latest news of the fire. Captain Jack informs us the harbor is still closed. Nevertheless, we head back hoping it will reopen by the time we get to the spit. We add passengers and again at Peterson Bay and now have 70 on board. As we approach Homer Spit, Jim and I scan the beach with binoculars trying to identify our vehicles. Jim sees his 5th wheel, but I’m not sure I can distinguish our Pace Arrow. By 6:30 the harbor is still closed, but an emergency port at the base of the spit is open. Captain Jack heads to the Hernan-Thompson boat basin and we unload at a barge connected by catwalk to the shore. There a school bus takes us to Homer High School, where emergency facilities are set up. Calling the only local phone number we know, Jim calls Kami at her home - a future Bed & Breakfast she intends to call Kamishack - and the place where Jim’s daughter’s in-laws, Henry & Betty, are vacationing coincidentally this week. Jim finds out Ermine is there and so are Shari, Don and Jean. Jim and I speculate what their day was like as we wait for them to pick us up at the high school.

(Shari) By 6 p.m. we figure that Jim and Bert now know the situation and may be trying to reach us. Jim’s daughter’s husband’s mother has a friend that is opening a Bed and Breakfast on East End Rd. in Homer. Ermine does not know her last name but does know how to get there. We travel to that location and tell them of our plight. I decide to call Rainbow Tours and ask them the status of Bert’s trip. They tell me that their boat has landed and they are being bussed to the high school where the remaining refugees, as we have been calling ourselves, are being housed. After being abandoned by a hastily departing ship under orders from the Coast Guard, 200 passengers from the Princess Cruise were bussed to the Elks Lodge and given hamburgers and then taken to Anchorage. Kami, the owner of the Bed and Breakfast graciously invites us to dinner. We pick the men up, run to the brewery for some beer and to the grocery store for some ice cream, underwear and toothbrushes. By now, warmed by the beer, salmon and companionship, we are having a small party, still expecting the road to the spit to open soon. After repeated phone calls to the command center, they tell us that they are not trying to put out the fire, but intend to let it burn itself out. So, here we are. At Kami’s. Don and Jean take a bedroom vacated by Chris, who sleeps on the floor with his parents. Jim and Ermine sleep on the floor in the living room and Bert and I get Kami’s bedroom. This is in another unheated building, its bare walls recently showing signs of being taped and floated, the room now containing stacks of clothes piled on unfinished shelving. Kami sleeps in the dining room, on the floor. Still others, Natalie Phillips (who writes tomorrow’s Anchorage Daily News lead article), Cindy (a graduate student in geology), Debra (another geology student), Judy and her husband, Susan and at least two others find places in the house, in tents or at vacant neighboring homes. I am afraid this ordeal is not over yet but am thankful for a bed to sleep on and a quilt to keep me warm.

 

Day 52 - July 2, 1998 - Milepost 5667 (67 today) - Johnson Lake, AK

(Bert) Heading off to bed after midnight, morning comes too early. We all reassemble around the kitchen table, drinking coffee, eating bagels and fresh fruit prepared by Kami. Conversations continue where they left off last night. Jim calls the emergency hot line, only to find out that the spit is still barricaded. In the living room, we gather on the floor and on chairs around the radio waiting for more news. Through the picture window we can see a dreary drizzly day over Kachemak Bay and wispy whirls of smoke limping from the remains of Icicle Seafoods. Jim and I perk up when we see flocks of ducks on the bay and we retrieve his spotting scope from the car. While we eyeball Surf and White-winged Scoters and a Common Redpoll, the radio announcer declares Homer Spit open to traffic. With nothing to pack, we give well-deserved hugs and thank-you’s to our hosts and all six of us pile into the Pathfinder, with Jim doubled over in the luggage compartment holding Nina. Back at Land’s End we see the smoldering remains cordoned by firefighters. At Land’s End, RTENT is still intact, just as Shari left it. We take showers, eat lunch and receive a surprising refund for last night’s stay; then drive off the spit and buy a copy of the Anchorage Daily News to read Natalie’s articles. At Johnson Lake Sally and Dave have graciously reserved two sites for us and are anxious to hear stories of our adventures. The salmon have been running heavy and Dave has caught his limit. We exchange halibut for salmon and enjoy his catch tonight.

(Shari) Compared to yesterday, everything will be anticlimactic. Air quality experts from Anchorage arrived in Homer last night. After tests in various places around the area, they determined the spit safe for activities at 9 a.m. It does not take us long to say thank-you and good bye to our gracious host. All six of us pile into the Pathfinder, with poor Jim and Nina reclining in the storage area behind the back seat. We take showers, dump and fill with fresh water before we head out north to Johnson Lake. Sally has been worried about us and after dinner we sit in her living room relating our harrowing experiences. I should mention our car does not work again. When disconnecting from the motorhome, the drive shaft would not engage. If anyone is counting what all is broken, here is a list: 1) the car; 2) the back heater (the front heater fixed itself and now works); 3) the generator; 4) the camera; 5) the jacks. Dave humorously asks Bert if he has anything that does work. Thankfully our refrigerator works because it is jammed smack full of fish and clams. We have an appointment Wednesday in Anchorage to have the above list fixed.

 

Day 53 - July 3, 1998 - Milepost 5667 - Johnson Lake, AK

(Bert) Virtual Dave got his moniker from Shari because she only heard of him in the third-person on the RV-Talk news group. Now that we have met him in person, I think Generous Dave would be a more fitting title. When we pulled into Johnson Lake yesterday, we could not operate our towed car (toad to RV’ers). This morning Generous Dave is stretched out beneath the Pathfinder trying to diagnose the problem. When we bought our Pace Arrow, we had a mechanic install a Remco drive-shaft-disconnect to our Pathfinder so that it could be towed safely. Installed beside the driver’s seat, a plunger connects to a mechanism that separates the drive shaft when pulled out and reassembles it when pushed in. Our problem now is that when we push the plunger in, the drive shaft does not reconnect. After a half hour under the car, Dave sees where the problem occurs, makes various adjustments to no avail and comes to the conclusion that a piece is worn and needs replacement. So I guess we are without an operational car until we tow it to Anchorage and get it fixed along with the other mechanical problems we have accumulated on the road. Next, Generous Dave conducts our first lesson in Salmon Fishing 101. He has brought along his tackle box and helps Shari rig salmon lures to our fishing rods and reels. "Lure" is a descriptor that seems to overstate the case. What he attaches to the end of our line is a medium size hook with a piece of brightly colored yarn tied to it. Salmon have no interest in eating as they return to spawn, so the yarn is merely an attractant - or irritant - something to get them to snap at, in reflex action, when it flashes in front of them as they swim upstream. About two feet from the hook, Dave attaches a T-shaped swivel with a piece of plastic tubing stuffed with an inch of lead, cut from a roll he carries in his tackle box. The rig looks strange now, but it will make more sense when we use it for fishing later. Generous Dave gives Shari a couple more lures and weights so she can string up my pole and have a few spares. At 7 p.m., Shari and I join Dave and Sally in their Freightliner, a monstrous truck they otherwise use for towing their large 5th wheel King-of-the-Road. Don drives separately as we head the short distance to the Kasiloff (pronounced Ka-SEE-loff) River. After a brief conference on the likelihood of encountering the bear sighted an hour earlier by a returning fisherman, we hike a quarter mile through the woods along the stream. On the inside edge of a sharp turn in the rushing river, a flat gravel shore is exposed. Now it serves as a convenient staging area for tonight’s salmon fishing. Generous Dave conducts our second lesson in Salmon Fishing 101 - casting. I walk into the stream to the limit of my calf high rubber boots; others, wearing hip boots, venture further into the cold water. At Dave’s directions I pull out about a dozen feet of line, face the opposite shore - call it 12 o’clock - and cast the pole and line in the direction of two o’clock. The lead weight plunges to the bottom, but the yarn and hook dance a foot or two higher in the stream. The swift current causes the weight to bounce downstream along the gravel bottom and the lure moves with it. Dave tells me to point my pole downward, almost touching the water, keeping ahead of the weight as it moves past me. When the pole reaches nine or 10 o’clock, I flip my wrist, giving the line a yank, grab the line with my left hand, pulling the lure from the water, and cast again to two o’clock, releasing the line from my hand to extend the throw. The action takes 12 seconds in the water and three seconds in air, so I am casting about four times per minute. The five of us generate lots of casting action, but little fishing action. Once, Sally shouts "Fish on," and at the same moment Shari thinks she has one also. Instead, Sally’s fish flops into Shari’s lap, causing a chorus of shrieks and screams, but the fish gets away. A couple hours later we have cold feet, aching arms and no fish. The score tonight is 0 to 5 - zero fish for five fishermen.

(Shari) Remember how I planned this trip to coincide with the sockeye runs on the Kenai and how Dave and Sally assured me we would limit out every day on our reds? Well, let me tell you of our first fishing trip on the Kasiloff River. Dave comes over in the morning to look over my fishing supplies. He shows me how to measure off a leader, tie a hook with a colorful piece of yarn on one end and stuff a lead cylindrical weight up a small section of rubber hose on the other. I make one of the outfits for Bert’s new rod that he purchased in Homer for just this occasion. Bert remarks that he wishes he had a video of me donning my new hip waders. I really do not know what all the snaps are. Nevertheless, I finally push and pull and snap and button until I think I am ready. Because our car does not move, we pile into Dave and Sally’s Freightliner. That is an experience in itself. Bert and Sally climb into the back part and sit on folding jump seats. I hand them my fishing pole and tackle box because I need both hands to get up and in. Dave pushes a little button and suddenly the front seat moves down with an accompanying sound like a balloon losing air. When we arrive at the parking area, we are told a brown bear had just been sighted less than thirty minutes ago along the path to the sand bar. We discuss whether we should call it quits or walk the path. Dave talks to the camp host and I talk to three men that had just traversed the path. They had not seen the bear. We decide to go for it and Sally leads the way. Bert follows, then Dave, then me, and finally Don brings up the rear. We talk and we sing and we holler and we whistle our way down the muddy narrow path and through the thick woods. I have all I can do to keep from falling over exposed roots and fallen tree trunks, let alone watch out for a bear. Midway through I ask if we are almost there yet. Finally we get to the fishing place. We have the area all to ourselves and each of us wades into the cold water to knee depth. Dave and Sally show us how to throw our line. We do not cast the line, but throw it in a way that reminds me of fly fishing: hold the pole, pull the line and gracefully move the rod in a top figure eight upstream. The current will move the fly down the stream and then the process is repeated. Now I am worried about the BEAR. I am so paranoid that the current of the river rippling over my boots in the back makes me jumpy and I think a bear is coming up behind me. Dave’s raincoat makes a crinkling sound and I just know another bear is on the other side. After two hours of this and nary a bite, I realize that Dave and Sally lied. I do not care if Nathan, their son, caught a salmon there last year within 24 hours of his arrival. I do not want to hear of the two couples that came last year and how Sally limited out in just 20 minutes. Every time they start another story of how great the fishing was, I just say, "Yah, Yah, Yah, Yah."

 

Day 54 - July 4, 1998 - Milepost 5667 - Johnson Lake, AK

(Shari) NO FISH! I feel like ending today’s journal with those two words but, to be fair, I need to explain. It is the Fourth of July today and Don and Jean with their red, white and blue vests and white pants and red shirts, look the occasion. We join them for an exercise walk around the park (a mile and a quarter by my pedometer). Sally joins us but we can enlist no one else for the parade. Later in the day we drive to Kenai and find a wonderful fabric store. It has a huge variety of fabric, yarns and pattern books and I wish I had hours to look. I do buy some Alaskan print fabric with moose, bear, snowflakes, pine trees, etc., in shades of blue. I think I’ll use it for a vest. Jean is a quilter and buys at least six different fabrics. We could stay longer but Don is anxious to go fishing. It is raining and even I, always so warm-blooded, need four layers of clothes. We tramp through the bear infested woods, making a lot of noise and park ourselves on a spot in the fast-moving stream. I throw my line for over an hour and nobody is getting anything. Sally says a person must cast 1,000 times for every fish caught. Funny I do not remember her saying that when she promised us our limit last winter. 3006, 5015, 6030, I count. This is BORING. Finally Dave gets two fish on, but loses them before he can back up onto the shore with them. Later Sally pulls in a nice fish. On the 10,000th cast, after we all have gotten cold and quit for the day, Dave pulls in a really nice one. Now you know what that means? The fish are running and we must go back into the stream to try our luck. 15300, 15301, 15302 and nothing. Finally I am too cold, wet and tired to care anymore and quit. Soon after, everyone quits. Bert and Dave clean the two fish and we intend to have grilled salmon for everybody tomorrow for supper. Now I just want a hot shower and a warm bed. Goodnight.

(Bert) Don drops me off at the Kenai Wildlife Refuge and then joins Shari and Jean for shopping in Kenai. Two years ago when I visited in late May, the marsh was an active breeding ground for shorebirds. Now when I visit in early July, I find no birds in the nesting stage: they have already raised their young. Ducklings are half grown; terns are full grown, but show juvenile plumage. Amazingly, here it is only the 4th of July and fall migration has already begun. I find a Semipalmated Sandpiper and flocks of Western Sandpipers. These birds pass through the Kenai Peninsula in spring, breed further north and then return in fall. So here is the first wave of migrants heading south for the winter. At the edge of the marsh is a fish cannery and to get a better view of the birds I walk through what I first judged to be a junk yard next to the cannery’s parking lot. Instead, what I actually find is a shanty town where college kids live during the summer while they work in the cannery. They’ve erected tents on rejected wooden pallets, made wind barriers with old tarps and wood scraps and scavenged anything else they could find to try improving their summer homes. I’ve heard they work long hours, often double shifts, to earn college money. The camp is depressing and is probably the closest these college kids will ever get to extreme poverty. This evening we again fish the Kasiloff River. The score is 2 to 5 tonight when Dave and Sally each land a salmon, but the other three of us go fishless.

 

Day 55 - July 5, 1998 - Milepost 5667 - Johnson Lake, AK

(Shari) Don whoops, hollers and shouts more than the Texas A&M football team after a touchdown. He has a salmon on his line and he runs for the shore as fast a quarterback avoiding a sack. He lands his prize and lovingly looks at it as Jean takes his picture. This action occurs about an hour after we have set our boots into the silty, rocky Kasiloff River for another marathon fishing trip. Dave is the first to land a red and then Don’s make two. About and an hour after our arrival, I am cold, achy and bored. I sit down on a tree stump and begin to read a book I have brought along. Suddenly Bert yells "Fish on." He loses it, but I figure if he has one on, the fish must be running. I gather my rod, waddle into the river and throw a few casts. I start to carp to Don, who is standing next to me, about how I think the lead weight on my line is too light for the current. Just then, I feel a tug on my line, I think I am snagged on the bottom and I give my pole a yank. A fish breaks water and my line pulls again and I eventually grasp the fact that the fish is on my line. Boy, do I holler. The people miles down river now know I have a fish. I gallop toward shore as fast as my size 7 feet in size 9 waders can move and I land my fish. Everyone has stopped fishing to see the commotion. Bert snaps many shots of me and my trophy. After three hours at the river we walk out of the woods with five salmon. Three are Dave’s, his limit, one belongs to Don and the very best one is mine. Bert did not get a fish but had three exciting strikes. We are happy campers and are ready for a celebration dinner at RTENT. The six of us gather around a smokey, but warm fire eating grilled salmon, cole slaw and Jean’s delicious potato salad and brownies. Later we help Dave and Sally clean ashes from the fire grills. Tomorrow the camp hosts are having a party and ranger Bud wants the place to look spic and span. We retire at midnight, thoroughly exhausted from a tough day. This retirement and vacationing is hard work. It is a "halibut" job but someone has to do it.

(Bert) On our invitation, Dave and Sally join the four of us for church this morning in Kenai. We arrive just after services have begun and the small church is almost filled. A congregation of hearty singers makes the walls reverberate with hymns. After services we meet a lady who attended the same high school Shari and I went to in Milwaukee. Then we find out she went to college in Chicago with Jean’s sister and still remembers her. Small world!

After a quick lunch the five us return to fishing and Jean comes along to watch. Unlike the last two rainy nights of fishing, this afternoon we enjoy bright sunshine and warm weather. Sally adds some pointers to our casting style and Dave judges our technique. We pass the test. Now we just need the fish. Dave encourages us by telling us that if the fish pass through we will catch them. So far the only thing Shari has caught is her coat collar, during an unsuccessful cast. Playfully, she taunts Sally in a sing song "Yea, yea, yea," nagging about the promises of fish, but no delivery. Then Dave gets a strike and loses one, but quickly follows with a landed salmon. Later he catches another one and then Don drags one ashore to a chorus of Aggie hoops and hollers. I get three great strikes and see the fish clear the water, but none stay hooked. Dave catches his third fish - a big one. Finally Shari hooks a salmon, pulls it out of the stream and drags it 20 ft. up the shore just to make sure it doesn’t get away. Five thousand six hundred sixty-seven miles and 55 days and Shari finally catches her first Alaskan salmon of the year! Tonight around our campfire, the six of us share in a grilled salmon feast and some more of Don’s wine.

 

Day 56 - July 6, 1998 - Milepost 5667 - Johnson Lake, AK

(Shari) I am not about to tell what hour of the morning I finally arise but it is even late to me. Hungering for lox, I call Kenai Seafood Processing and learn I can smoke our salmon into lox for $3.95 per lb. if we have fileted the fish. Poor Bert cleans the fish on our picnic table as I hold an umbrella over his head to protect him from the rain. He promised to clean everything I would catch. He did not have much work until now and it was a safe bet. After dropping the fish off in Kenai, Jean and I spend a relaxing afternoon shopping. We both love fabric stores and we wile away a good amount of time at JoAn Fabrics in Soldotna. We also make an appointment at Ace’s Automotive for our 42,000 and 45,000-mile checkup. The first available time is next week. We will try to have it done in Anchorage but if they too are booked as far ahead as Ace’s, we will use this appointment. Our dinner menus have been seafood related for some time. We have had fried clams, clam chowder, clam scampi, grilled salmon, smoked salmon, fried halibut, baked halibut, Halibut Olympia, grilled halibut, halibut salad and tonight baked halibut and stuffing. When swallowing, one side of my throat feels scratchy: it is either the beginnings of a sore throat or the germination of gills.

(Bert) While walking in the forest beside Johnson Lake, I see a loon floating among the lily pads just 20 ft. from shore. The bold black and white pattern is so vivid it looks like wet ink applied with a calligraphy pen. Even its iridescent soft green feathers glow at this distance. The loon does not see me hidden behind spruce trees when it releases its plaintive call-of-the-wild song. Out in the middle of the lake I see another Common Loon. This one has a chick perched on her back. Two more loons swim in another corner of the lake. Back at camp at 11 a.m., Shari is still sleeping when I return. All her fishing has worn her out, but with me shifting in RTENT, she arises. After a phone call she tells me that I need to fillet and skin yesterday’s fish before she takes them to Kenai to have them smoked for lox. The skinning would have been easier yesterday, but we weren’t sure what was required until today. With her fish, plus three from Dave, I prepare a large kettle full of salmon meat. In the afternoon, while Shari and Jean go to Kenai and Soldotna, I work on the computer and catch up on some of my software business tasks: crystallographic software which I sell over the web. I prepare an order for a Japanese university and then catch up on journal writing.

 

Day 57 - July 7, 1998 - Milepost 5837 (170 today) - Anchorage, AK

(Bert) It takes four of us to push the Pathfinder out of our campsite and into position so that we can back RTENT to couple the two together. I’ll be glad when we get the Remco drive shaft disconnect working. On our way back to Anchorage we again pass between the mountains of Kenai peninsula and drive around Turnagain Arm. It was a wonder to behold two weeks ago and it is still amazing this afternoon. At a rest stop where we stop for lunch, I watch the skies and discover an immature Golden Eagle being harassed by two smaller birds. The eagle pivots its wings to the left and to the right and sometimes even flies upside down in an attempt to claw at the pests. Golden Eagles are rare in this part of Alaska and this is the first time I’ve seen them in the state. When we get to Turnagain Arm, I pay more attention this time to the sunken forest near Portage Creek. Jim told me this area was affected by the Anchorage earthquake and like many other shorelines around here, the ground dropped from a few feet to up to 30 ft. As a result, the roots of many shoreline trees ended up below the water table and the trees died. The tide is out and now the mud flats are exposed: a couple of miles wide and several dozen miles long. The flats are like quicksand, smooth and wet in broad stretches, but etched with rivulets swirling through the mud and furrowed with miniature canyons. We enter Anchorage and drop off our Pathfinder at A&M RV and then head to Centennial Park for the night.

(Shari) 4,100 lbs. of steel and metal is too hard for two men to push. But with the help of Dave and Sally, Don and Jean and Bert and myself we can push the car into a position for hitching. Bert backs RTENT toward the car very slowly and Dave connects the two. We are off to Anchorage to get our vehicles serviced. At A&M Service, Al initiates a work order, estimating the time necessary to complete each task and marking the hours down on the form. Meanwhile, I am mentally adding the labor costs he is estimating and we are agreeing to pay: 2 hours for the generator, 1.5 hours for the jacks, 1 hour for the light, 2.5 hours for the drive shaft, 1.5 hours for the heater. 8.5 hours times $76 per hour scares me. I poke Bert and whisper that we can live without the heater and the light issue. So those items are crossed off the order. I am not happy with the situation, but what can we do? We take RTENT, now without the car, to Centennial Campground where Don and Jean have saved us a spot. They are not happy campers either; a post reared itself into Don’s path as he was backing his motorhome into spot 23 and the fiberglass bumper ripped off leaving a ragged hole under the headlight. I am just sick about it and guess they feel worse. Nevertheless, they still want us to share their delicious Finnish salmon soup and cherry pie. A little fellowship and food go a long way in healing sore emotions and we say goodnight, all feeling a little better. However, my prayers for this evening include a request to lessen the bill for the repairs.

 

Day 58 - July 8, 1998 - Milepost 5837 - Anchorage, AK

(Shari) We entrust Steve with RTENT and the toad. Bert stays at the service center and Jean and I fill the backseat of her Honda with our dirty wash and head for the Laundromat. We finish our seven loads of wash in the time it takes to do one load at home and return to the service center. Only minor things were found wrong with our vehicles, however the bill so far is $283.97. This is not in the budget! Steve orders a part for our drive shaft and fixes the car so we have use of it until the part arrives Friday. After a lunch at Wendy’s, Bert and I set up camp and then locate Chuck’s Camera Clinic on Dimond and Arctic. Chuck looks at Bert’s camera and thinks it is hopeless. He is willing to try some chemical that bonds plastic to plastic, but gives no guarantees. It may or may not work after the bonding dries and he does not charge us for the labor. We return to RTENT and have halibut with orange sauce for supper. I notice we eat less and less halibut with every meal and tonight we only finish half a package. More halibut tomorrow I guess. I think those fish are mating in the freezer, because although I have taken at least three packages out, no room remains to put anything back in.

(Bert) Thirty minutes past midnight I am awakened by the call of an owl. I easily recognize the three common owls at home, but this one is different. A couple minutes later the owl hoots again. Now I’m fully awake and I try to describe the sound to myself so that I can identify it in the morning with my CD-ROM. It sounds like a saw, a broad metal saw from my workbench. Actually it isn’t the saw so much as the sound made when hitting the metal on the saw. Then it dawns on me: the Saw-whet Owl got its name from the sound of sharpening a saw blade. I try to fall asleep again, but I’m still awake at 1:15 when the owl calls again. In the morning I put my CD into my notebook computer and confirm the call as Northern Saw-whet Owl, another lifer. As the day wears on, I get a feeling of accomplishment, not so much from what I have done, but from all the things others have fixed for me. First at A&M RV, mechanic Steve fixes the Onan generator. He changes the oil in the generator and now the electrical problem is fixed. Don’t ask me how those two things are connected. All I know is that the generator now puts out electricity and last night it did not. Second, Steve fixes the hydraulic jacks by adding a pint of transmission fluid. I had purchased fluid and intended to do it myself, but I couldn’t find where to check the fluid level or where to add the fluid. He is confused about the dip stick too until he discovers that a previous mechanic had replaced the dip stick with a screw cap from a water pump. No wonder it didn’t look like my parts manual! And to add the fluid, he uses a pump with a long rubber hose to reach to the top of the jack reservoir because, otherwise, he cannot get the fluid in either. No wonder I couldn’t find a place to pour it! Next Steve looks at the rear furnace and comes to the same conclusion I had: it doesn’t work. So we let that one alone for now and go on to more important things: the Remco drive-shaft-disconnect. After a half-hour labor he is able to connect the drive shaft and disconnect it again, but only if he crawls under the vehicle each time and moves the shaft. He says that for another hour’s labor he will take it apart, clean it and try to find the coupling problem. I okay the expenditure and check with him later when he shows me the problem. I point to the part that Generous Dave said was worn and Steve agrees and says that’s the problem. I got free advice from Dave when he told me the part was worn and for $100 I got the same advice from Steve. The difference is that Steve can order the part and replace it by Friday or Saturday - for another charge, of course. So far, I’ve fixed a lot of things today. Now we drive to Chuck’s Camera Clinic (sounds like a hospital for cameras). Earlier, I called Camera Service Center and their estimate was $180 and a 4-weeks turnaround. On the phone, Chuck quoted more than $100 and 10 days - still too long for me - but suggested I bring the camera in to see if he could glue it together. Well, that’s exactly what he does to the sprocket shaft that passes the film from one spool to the other. And he did it for free, even when I pressured him to take some money for his 15 minutes of work. But he can’t guarantee his glue job will solve the problem. I’ll have to try when it dries. So Mechanical Bert fixed lots of things today; all it took was money and the right helpers.

 

Day 59 - July 9, 1998 - Milepost 5837 - Anchorage, AK

(Shari) I am a bit irritated as the car wiggles up and down and feel exasperated that Bert thinks he is so cute. I turn around, about to yell at him to quit playing with the bikes mounted on the back bumper. But I cannot see him and the car is still bouncing. I open the door and speculate that I am experiencing an earthquake. Later I find it was a quake that registered 6.5 on the Richter scale. This quake does not compare to the one in 1964 which was 9.6 and nearly leveled Seward and Valdez. It does make me nervous as we ride our bikes along the coastal trail and read about the homes near where we stand that fell into the ocean along with a piece of ground 400 ft. wide and 8,000 ft. long. We start our bike ride after eating lunch at a picnic table across from Winchester Lagoon. From there we follow the paved, rather flat, path along the coast, stopping frequently along the way. Many benches are scattered at scenic locations, so I usually bike a half mile or so, find a bench, soak up the sun and read a book until Bert catches up to me. It is rather a strange ride but we both enjoy it. He is happy birding and I am happy biking and reading. The smell of roses and clover permeates the air and daisies as big as my palm nod their heads in the breeze as I pedal by.

(Bert) Anchorage boasts some of the best municipal biking trails in the country. If you prefer scenic beauty, paved surfaces and relatively flat paths, these can’t be beat. We park our car at Westchester Lagoon, positioned on Cook’s Inlet just south of the downtown area, and bicycle along the coast. Woods are on our left and mudflats on our right as we bike south toward the airport. Dowitchers, sandpipers and ducks feed on the mudflats, which extend toward the bay for 200 yards. The calm bay is narrow here near the northern extremity of Cook’s Inlet and uninhabited woods and snow-covered volcanoes lie on the opposite shore. At various points along the biking/walking/skating path we can look back toward Anchorage and see the skyscrapers of downtown and the snow capped mountains beyond the city. Our winding path is edged with wild flowers: orange poppies, white Arctic Daisies, yellow Butter and Eggs, pink clover and some pale blue flowers I can’t identify. We pass a series of descriptive signs that give details of the Good Friday Earthquake (March 27, 1964), the world’s worst quake in modern times. The land below much of the city dropped 2 to 7 ft. and some homes shifted laterally by as much as 500 ft. With all the structural damage done by the earthquake, it’s amazing that no more than a handful of people died. Some other cities, notably Valdez and Seward, did much worse, but not from the quake itself. These coastal cities were destroyed from the 50-ft. waves that hit shore at 100 m.p.h. The waves were still 9 ft. high when they reached San Francisco.

 

Day 60 - July 10, 1998 - Milepost 5837 - Anchorage, AK

(Shari) The good news is the car and motorhome are fixed. The bad news is the motorhome cost $167 and the car cost an additional $144. That plus our $284 bill Wednesday surely is not in the budget. But what can you do? I just hope this is it now. It is wonderful to have everything work for a change. We have a tight schedule today. We arrive at Worthington Ford at 8 a.m. sharp for our motorhome appointment. It is routine service and should be done this afternoon. Jean and I go shopping and Don and Bert go birding. At 1 p.m. our motorhome has not been started and the part for our car had just arrived. The car repair is completed in time for us to make the 3:30 appointment at Our Savior Lutheran Church for VBS training. There we meet Gene and Charlene who are our team leaders. After an hour of introductions and a video on child abuse we are dismissed. Bert and I rush back to the Ford dealer and pick up RTENT, rather perturbed that the mechanic left it out on the street with keys inside and the door unlocked. We arrive back at camp just in time for Happy Hour at Don and Jean’s before we head to Chepo’s, a Mexican restaurant in Eagle River. We find the portions at Mexican restaurants to be big enough for two people and we are glad we decided to share one meal.

(Bert) "Terek Sandpiper is the first bird on my life list," declares Don. To a non-birder, Don’s statement means little. To a birder, his statement is unbelievable. But I’ll vouch for Don. With shopping on their agenda, we drop off Shari and Jean in downtown Anchorage this morning. Don and I continue to Westchester Lagoon where we park the car. I meet a birder who tells me a Terek Sandpiper has been sighted on the mudflats and he gives me general directions to the location. He also says he checked with the local Audubon Society and found out they only have four documented records of the bird ever appearing in the Anchorage area; Terek is an Asian bird that is sometimes a vagrant to the Aleutian Islands. Don and I walk the path along Cook’s Inlet until we come to a spot covered with shorebirds. Don continues down the path while I stop to scan the mudflats. After an hour of sorting through literally thousands of dowitchers I identify a few Hudsonian Godwits, Black Turnstones and a half-dozen sandpipers - but no Terek. Don returns, it’s raining lightly and we are due to meet the women in 15 minutes, so we start back to the parking lot. A few hundred yards back, I think I’ve found it. Swinging its bill like fists from a drunken cowboy in a barroom brawl, the 9-in. sandpiper dances erratically and frantically just 30 ft. from us. Don remarks how the bird’s behavior is so different from the thousands of others we have been watching. Its field marks are distinctive: short orange legs, long upturned bill, two black lines on its scapulars. I’ve got a life bird I never dreamed of finding and when I tell Don that not one in a million Americans has seen this species, he declares it as the first bird on his life list.

 

Day 61 - July 11, 1998 - Milepost 6026 (189 today) - Johnson’s Lake, AK

(Bert) It is a rare occurrence when Shari is out of bed before me. I’ve been listening to the rain pattering on the roof of RTENT and thinking Shari would change her mind about going to the open market this morning. Don must have shared my thoughts when he knocks at the door and asks Shari her plans. They haven’t changed; we leave for shopping at 8 a.m. When we arrive in downtown Anchorage, the vendors are setting up in light drizzle, but patches of blue sky anticipate a better day is forthcoming. I make one round of the half-opened booths and go back to the car to nap; the ladies circle the area several times like vultures zeroing in on the kill. At lunchtime we break camp and again head south into the Kenai peninsula. By mid-July the snow has been reduced to narrow slivers radiating from the mountain peaks, poking down long crevices in the green tundra and touching the tree line. We stop only to let backed-up cars pass our slower RV’s and continue to Johnson’s Lake where Sally greets us. She says another visitor from Bryan/College Station has arrived and we soon guess it is Clyde and Sarita. A few minutes later Clyde pulls up. After bear hugs, the talk quickly shifts to salmon fishing and Shari and Clyde swap stories. In the evening we go to Charlotte’s, an excellent restaurant in Kenai and a favorite of Sally’s.

(Shari) Don knocks on our door at 7:30 this morning to ask if we still intended to go to the downtown market. What a naive question! Of course we are. I would not let a little rain stop me from a bit of shopping. I love these open air markets and am anxious to stroll past the booths, even if it does rain. We arrive shortly after 8:30 and find the vendors just setting up their stands. Apparently the rain scared them also. It is a small market with a few booths of fresh produce. Some sell food and most hawk their handmade products: Beanie Baby sleeping bags, polar fleece vests, T-shirts, paintings, jewelry, toys, hand-crafted furniture. I find a booth selling jewelry made of garnets. My birth stone is garnet and I have never seen such big stones for so little cost. I remember reading that garnets are found along the beach at one location on the Marine Highway. I purchase a necklace and earrings to match for $9.50. Johnson Lake is our next destination and we find Clyde and Sarita Brothers are camping here also. Sally - what a sweetheart - has saved us two pull-through sites near hers. I am so thankful we know them since the campground is full when we arrive and without the saved sites we would have been up a river without a paddle. We hardly get a chance to park RTENT before we find ourselves chatting with Sally and Clyde about fishing. I do not have to eat fish tonight since we go along with Dave and Sally to a place called Charlotte’s in Kenai. It is a wonderful little restaurant recently opened and the menu has delicious items made with local ingredients and fresh home grown produce and herbs. Tablecloths and cloth napkins, soft live folk music and real roses on each table add to the ambience of the cheery restaurant.

 

Day 62 - July 12, 1998 - Milepost 6026 - Johnson’s Lake, AK

(Bert) Comfortable is the word that best describes Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna. We feel like we are among friends within minutes after we arrive. Double doors held open by greeters, a rich wood decor and padded movable pews, double story glass windows behind the altar overlooking a lush forest, interior designer paraments and a talented organist playing soft music - these are the elements that greet us before the service even begins. When Pastor Randy Parshall opens the service and asks us to greet each another, we find out the parishioner behind us has close relatives in our hometown. So many conversations start around the room that Pastor Randy has trouble bringing us back to order. Throughout the service, the casual friendly atmosphere builds on hymns chosen spontaneously by the congregation (a challenge the organist handles well), the spell bound story related in the children’s lesson, the sermon based on the Good Samaritan, the congregation’s extemporaneous prayer requests. Greetings and welcomes follow after services from many members and we leave with a strong feeling this is a church we would join if we lived in the area. In the afternoon, while Dave, Don and Clyde fish the Kasiloff - unsuccessfully - the rest of us catch up on chores or take naps. The rainy afternoon lightens around 5 p.m. and I start a big fire in the ring on our site, then invite everyone to share in Happy Hour. Rain increases and everyone wants a picture of the 10 of us sitting on lawn chairs around the camp fire, each holding an umbrella to divert the water. But drink, food and mostly conversation continues until 8, in spite of the inclement weather.

(Shari) Who do you know that would sit in the rain around a camp fire with umbrellas and stemware? The Great Alaska Get-Together (GAGT) has started and, rain or shine, we are going to celebrate. The GAGT was conceived during the winter when Sally’s posts on RV-Talk were so interesting that many of us were drooling about coming to Alaska this summer. Anyone who mentioned they intended to travel the distance to Alaska was put on a list. Sally graciously agreed to have the GAGT at Johnson Lake and we picked July 12-16. Because of the distances involved, we planned it as a rather loose party, sort of come and go as you can. Tonight all those who have arrived are getting acquainted. Don and Jean Mahnke, Clyde and Sarita Brothers, Sally and Dave Davis, Jane Young with nephew Zack, and Bert and I make up the group of crazies that sit in the rain over Happy Hour. Don says from above we must look like a bunch of flowers with each of us holding a colorful umbrella above our heads. The talk is lively and includes topics from fishing to grocery stores in Alaska to fishing to wildlife in Alaska to fishing to ministers we know to fishing to vegetarian foods to fishing to Escapees to fishing. Zach wants to go fishing tomorrow but needs a rod. Clyde gives him his. Now all he needs are the fish. The men did not catch any today and Sally, Bert and I had decided to wait until they did before we went out. We stayed warm and dry, took naps, cleaned and baked goodies. I think that is a great plan for tomorrow also.

 

Day 63 - July 13, 1998 - Milepost 6026 - Johnson’s Lake, AK

(Shari) Everyone wants to do something else today. Don goes fishing. Sally and Dave try to sell their car. Clyde and Sarita need a new battery in their trailer. Jane and Zack, I think, go fishing also. Bert and Jean write journal entries. So, I am forced to go to town by myself to run my errands. My first stop is at Kenai Seafood Processing to pick up the salmon I had processed into lox. As I put the vacuum-packed fillets into the cooler, I notice that they are cut very evenly and not like the ones I brought in. I think they swapped my fish out with theirs and I came out the winner with nice looking fillets neatly packaged. My next stop is to cancel the appointment at Ace’s to fix our jacks. I had made two appointments in case the one in Anchorage did not work out. Back in the car, I drive around town trying to locate the post office. After 10 fruitless minutes, I stop to ask. I mail Missy and Victor’s 7th anniversary present (can you imagine it has been seven years already?) and pick up the mail Missy forwarded to us. Next on the errand list is groceries and photo reprints at Fred Meyers. Freddies caters to RVer’s. They supply free a camping, free water and free dump and many, many, many people take advantage of the hospitality. The parking lot is full of rigs, some with awnings out and plants and rugs and chairs strategically placed to mark their spot on the asphalt. I have never seen it so crowded and it looks like a bee hive of activity. Everyone is waiting for the salmon to arrive on the Kenai. Each river has its own salmon that return to it to spawn and each river’s timing is different. The next run everyone is awaiting is the Kenai Reds. Rumors abound of a small run, a big run, a late run, no run and even of the river closing due to lack of fish. They had closed it earlier for the King Salmon run. The town would be devastated and so would I. I am one of the crazy people waiting for the salmon. We have lazy days at camp, but the purpose of our being here is to be ready for the salmon when and if they arrive. I gather supplies and head the 16 miles home. Bert is preparing our site for this evening’s gathering. He sets up our grill and folding table and soon we all gather for hamburgers, salad, chips and s’ mores around the fire. How can we find so much to talk about? We chatter and laugh until close to 11 p.m.

(Bert) "It was a quiet day at Lake Johnson," a twist on Garrison Keillor aptly describes today. We are late to rise, while away our time in routine affairs, chit chat with our extended RV families, bicycle a rough gravel road that leads nowhere, chase down a pair of thieves. This last thought has a bit of intrigue attached. While I am rummaging through our outside storage compartments, a small weathered red truck with an unusual flatbed slowly creeps past. I am unaware of the four eyes surveying my possessions from the truck’s cab. When I look up, I see Jacqui in her green State of Alaska Parks truck closely following the suspicious red truck. She motions me toward her, jumps out of the cab and tells me to look at the truck as it disappears down the park road. She tells me the two occupants have been canvassing the campsites and she suspects they are the thieves that have been active stealing from campers anything left unattached. Later she returns to tell me she stopped the red truck for a broken taillight, traced the license plate to a Sterling address and questioned the two men. She asked me to keep an eye out for them and to tell her if they show up again tonight. Nothing more happens, but Deputy Sherif Bert will keep his eyes open and give you a report when it does. Like I said, "It was a quiet day at Lake Johnson."

 

Day 64 - July 14, 1998 - Milepost 6026 - Johnson’s Lake, AK

(Shari) Jane Young is someone to know. She is another one of my Internet friends that now has a face to go along with her name. She is traveling with her 92-year-old father, Papa George, and her 13-year-old cousin, Zack. Sandwiched between, she must juggle the likes and dislikes of a generation 80 years apart. Slowed by a stroke when in his 80's, Papa George walks with the aid of a walker or electric cart. Almost completely deaf with a short attention span, it is a marvel he does so well traveling. Jane says that at home in Florida he sleeps a lot but on the road he is most alert and watches the scenery go past his window as he gazes from the front copilot seat next to her. Zack on the other hand is a typical active 13-year-old boy. He is especially bright for his age and all us "old" people enjoy his company. Clyde gave him a fishing pole, Dave gave him some meal worms and Don took him fishing. His luck was as bad as ours and, three hours later, he came home with nothing but a smile. He enjoyed the outing and wanted to stay longer to wait for those all elusive reds. However he must return home on the 28th and there is much left of Alaska to see. Jane, Papa George and Zack left this morning for the continuation of their journey. After I see Jane off, Bert and I enjoy the beautiful Alaska day with bright sunshine and warm (70's) temperatures. It is a perfect day for a bike ride along the gravel road past Johnson Lake. We do not have any exciting adventure, but enjoy the exercise and fresh air. Upon returning Bert readies the fire for our next party. Peggy and Bill Harju, another Internet buddy, have arrived and we grill fish, drink wine and get acquainted. Bill is retired from the Teacher’s Association in San Diego and Peggy is currently a high school counselor with the summer off. Bill loves RV’ing, full timing, wilderness, fishing and camping. Peggy’s idea of camping is a single room at the Hilton. We do feel special that she has joined Bill on this trip and I find it hard to believe she would rather be in a luxurious resort complex sipping strawberry daiquiris around the pool than drinking a beer, eating grilled salmon around the fire.

(Bert) If it weren’t for the interactions with camping friends, this wait for the fish run would be getting old by now. About the time our batteries are wearing down, our water is running out and our gray and black water tanks are filled, we are usually ready to hit the road for more adventure. If the salmon don’t show up tomorrow, we’ll probably leave the next day. The bright side, though, has been the friendly gatherings around the campfire each evening. We say goodbye to Jane and Zach this afternoon and, a few hours later, say hello to Bill and Peggy Harju - another RV-Talk subscriber - when they pull into the same camping spot. While we share the crackling fire, we also share another potluck and hours of conversation. Bill and Peggy add new elements to our discussions: he with his background as head of the San Diego teachers’ union and she as a councilor of high school kids. Several comment how they could never handle Peggy’s job as councilor; then, in turn, others say they could never be the nurses that Jean and Sally are; someone else says they couldn’t teach chemistry and physics like Shari did. I guess that’s why God gives us different talents and interests.

 

Day 65 - July 15, 1998 - Milepost 6026 - Johnson’s Lake, AK

(Bert) Skilak Lake is a large lake hidden in the Kenai Peninsula. We decide to explore the area today by car. Access is by the 19-mile Skilak Lake Road which begins a few miles east of Sterling, an unimpressive town that would go unnoticed except for the expensive, wide double-lane highway that passes down its center - a pork belly gift solicited by a local congressman. By contrast the lake road is gravel, but easily navigated. We pass other lakes along the way, the first being Bottenintnin Lake. While I stop to watch Pacific Loons, Shari casts for Dolly Varden. I get my birds; she loses her hook and worm. The gravel lot could support a half-dozen RV’s but now has only a single unoccupied trailer with Wisconsin plates. As we travel the Skilak Lake Road, other campsites show up along the way, many beautifully secluded locations, often without fees. We find the better sites in the parks run by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge system. All of these look very recently completed and with a large financial commitment. At the park on lower Skilak Lake I meet an Australian on holiday. He started his vacation 2 years ago in Argentina and has traveled by land all the way to Alaska. His chief interest is birds and he estimates he has seen 25% of the world’s species on his trip. The best campsite we encounter is the refuge park at Hidden Lake, complete with paved sites, water and a dump site. This is one worth remembering for a future camping site.

(Shari) I get snookered into another marathon bird trip. Bert asks me if I want to take a drive along the Skilak Lake Road. It is a 19-mile gravel road that makes a loop off the Sterling Highway. I figure this will only take two to three hours. How many people do you know can be gone six hours and only traverse 19 miles? We seem to stop at every little turnout and campground. Bert wants to see some kind of loon and a hybrid gull. The gull is a cross between one found in Homer and one found in Anchorage. The differences being some itty bitty spot on their wings. Now gulls are plentiful in this area and looking at the wings of gulls for a spot is not my idea of a fun time. I take a book to read, I take a nap and I get bored. We do find some really neat campgrounds along the road for future reference. The Upper Skilak Campground is the best. It has recently been paved and most spots are level and big and well separated from neighbors. Seeing some sign advertising ranger programs at an am.p.h.itheater seems strange since so few people are residents in the campground. A dump station exists at the entrance to the campground. However, fresh water must be obtained via a hand pump. When returning home we see a huge fish hanging on a hook near a guide service office. Bert stops the car and we get out to talk to the owner of that fish. It is a 63-lb. King Salmon and was caught today at 2 p.m. on the Kenai. If I ever had one of those on my line I would just faint and never know what to do. What a thrill that must be to have one of those monsters strikes your hook!

 

Day 66 - July 16, 1998 - Milepost 6137 (111 today) - Seward, AK

(Shari) Roll up the awning. Fold up the outdoor rug. Put away the screen tent. Pack up the lawn chairs. It is time to move on. Sally calls us "weenies" because we are not staying for the reds to come into the Kenai. I told her if they come in, we will come back. I gave her Don and Jean’s message number to call if the fish start to run. We still have much of Alaska to see and run the danger of dilly dallying around and missing things on our list. We head for Seward. Here Jean wants to visit her cousin and the Sea Life Aquarium, Bert wants to take a bird tour, Don wants to fish and I want to see Exit Glacier. We have not camped here before but understand the City Park is right along the shore much like Land’s End in Homer but without hookups. That is okay with us and we dump our tanks and fill with fresh water at Freddies in Soldotna. We arrive in Seward and at first think all but three or four sites are taken. Quickly we maneuver into position for those sites. Later in the day we find the city park stretches for a long way along the shore and the places further out are better. The park is just a gravel, pot-holed parking lot but the view out our front windows is of Resurrection Bay. Here we can watch the ships coming and going, birds cavorting in the air and Sea Otters frolicking in the water. Seward has a small paved bike trail that Bert and I take and discover there is more to the town than we first realized. The old part of Seward is separated from the touristy boat harbor. After visiting the tour booths lined up at the boat harbor, Bert chooses a company called Sea Quest that will take him to the Chiswell Islands on a catamaran. He is after specific birds and I opt to save my money for a glacier tour out of Valdez. Taking a 6-hour boat around some rocky island looking at birds that all seem gull-like does not strike my fancy. Been there, done that, choose to pass! As the day winds down we sit in our lawn chairs, facing the bay enjoying Happy Hour with homemade pickled halibut. I copied the recipe out of a cookbook when I picked up my lox. It tastes good, if I say so myself.

(Bert) On the road to Seward we pass between mountains as beautiful as others on the peninsula, but now becoming commonplace. Narrow, long lakes separate the road from the base of the mountains and these lakes take on various shades of gray - blue-gray, steel-gray, green-gray - from the glacial silt the streams carry down the mountains. Many are tranquil with mirror surfaces that reflect inverse images of the green mountains. Some are opaque with a brushed aluminum surface stirred by a light breeze. We descend slowly into Seward, a seaport at the tip of Resurrection Bay. At the city lot, I aim RTENT toward sea and park a few feet from the lapping waves. Here we camp with a view of glaciers across the bay and a procession of boats before us. Like Homer Spit, Sea Otters and Harbor Seals frolic in the water and thousands of gulls take to the air. But unlike Homer Spit, an attractive tourist industry has developed around the harbor giving Shari lots of shopping opportunities. I book a sightseeing cruise for tomorrow on Wildlife Quest (Shari is saving her trip for Valdez to see glaciers) and Don books a salmon charter. In the evening I set up our lawn chairs at water’s edge and we have drinks and snacks - Shari’s homemade pickled halibut - while watching Resurrection Bay.

 

Day 67 - July 17, 1998 - Milepost 6137 - Seward, AK

(Bert) The M.V. St. Phillip piloted by Capt. Becky leaves the harbor at 11:30 with 100 on board, two-thirds capacity. Our naturalist is Susan and with two other women crew members they greatly outnumber the one man in the crew. The St. Phillip is a sleek new catamaran designed to cruise at high speed and good at maneuvering toward wildlife. While cruising Resurrection Bay - named by its discover on Easter Day in the late 1700s - we encounter Sea Otters, endangered Stellar Sea Lions and bright orange sea stars and Hermit Sponges. Farther out to sea we are constantly accompanied by Tufted and Horned Puffins - clowns of the sea; I am amazed how common they are here. The sky opens to blue clarity and warm sun, 63 degrees on the deck thermometer. The sea is calm with only the ripples of passing boats stirring the surface. Capt. Becky spots a spouting whale and heads toward the target. In five minute intervals the Hump-backed Whale gives us three shows of its enormous gray back and sculpted flukes. Further into Kenai Fjord National Park we discover Killer Whales: two males, each with a long thin dorsal fin that looks like a tall black mast on a 25-ft. black boat. The Orcas come so close to our boat that they overwhelm my telephoto lens. Then they dive under the ship and resurface minutes later a mile out to sea. We follow the coast line and in transit I spot a Parakeet Auklet, a strange small seabird with a bright orange parrot bill and a white feather plume sprouting from its eye and a lifer for me. We pass Bear Glacier, then Holgate Glacier and Pederson Glacier, finally stopping at Aialik Glacier. We slowly glide through the icebergs calved from the glacier and spot Harbor Seals resting on several. Stopping 0.4 mile from the glacier, it appears that we are much closer to the ice edge, 35 stories high. But when we see the edge crumbling and watch the ice hit the water, we wait seconds before hearing the cracking and splashing, a testament to the actual distance separating us. On our way back we pass around one of the Chiswell Islands, the main focus of my interest on this trip. The captain stops to view some more Stellar Sea Lions but makes little attempt finding the more than 31,000 puffins and tens of thousands of other sea birds that nest on these small islands. Instead, she heads back out to open water to find more Hump-backed Whales. I am disappointed and felt mislead from the statements made by the woman who sold me my ticket. While a good cruise for seeing whales and a mediocre cruise for tidal glaciers, I definitely would not recommend it for pelagic birding. The Kenai Fjords cruise Shari and I took two years ago was much better for all three interests.

(Shari) I watch Bert embark onto the big catamaran. I feel a bit solitary and abandoned as I walk up the gang plank to the shops on the street. Nevertheless, I soon forget my loneliness as I become immersed in the T-shirts and Alaskan nicknacks. It does not take me long to visit the few shops on the street and I head home just in time to see Bert’s tour pass in front of RTENT on its voyage out to sea and the awaiting birds. The rest of the day is spent on the computer with my journal catch up and budget bothers. No matter how long I stare at the figures, they tell the same story; we spend too much on film, developing, entertainment and birding. My solution as I sit by myself looking out at the dreary day is to have Bert get a job. Feeling better now that I have settled that situation, I wash my hair, nap a bit and soon I see the catamaran heading back to port. I reach for my binoculars and see Bert standing on the upper outside deck. He too looks lonesome with no companions at his side as the boat passes. I walk to meet him and he tells me of finally seeing a Parakeet Auklet. That was one bird he wanted to see in 1996 and even made a tour boat of 50 or so people search the rocky cliffs for the elusive bird. Jean’s cousin recommended Ray’s restaurant for our Friday date night. Bert and I share a tasty Caesar salad and Cioppino. The food is delicious and by sharing a meal and forgoing liquor, we keep the tab to $35 including tip.

 

Day 68 - July 18, 1998 - Milepost 6137 - Seward, AK

(Bert) Of the nearly 1 billion dollars in the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement, some is distributed annually for projects that support sealife research and education. Alaska SeaLife Center is one of these projects. On my visit this morning I note some similarities to the aquarium zoos I’ve visited in Chicago, Boston and Monterrey, but here the em.p.h.asis is on research on Alaskan sealife and I get the chance to hear scientists talk about their research both in person and through well-designed computer monitors. One showing which has received many people’s praise is a wildlife video narrated by an 8-year-old boy. Although the basic script must have been written by an adult, the delivery is all through the voice, vocabulary and excitement of a young child. Three giant aquariums house Harbor Seals, Stellar Sea Lions and Tufted Puffins with Common Murres. I view each from above water on the second story and below water on the first story. In the puffin exhibit, I walk through the glass doors to the birds which swim within a couple of feet of where I stand. Then on the lower level, I watch the same birds diving below the surface to feed on fish, propelling themselves with their wings in a motion that looks just like flying underwater. After lunch, Shari and I drive to Exit Glacier, part of the Harding Icefield as were the glaciers I viewed yesterday from the catamaran. The icefield stretches atop the Kenai Peninsula for 50 miles in one direction and 30 in the other, a massive snow-covered remnant of the last ice age. Glacial ice spills out of this huge bowl, some in the form of tidal glaciers which reach the sea, others pouring down mountain crevices high among the peaks and one - Exit Glacier - that descends slowly to a shallow valley, giving the original Harding Icefield explorers an easy exit from the top. Of the 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, this is one of the few we can drive to and touch after a short hike. At one time it probably reached Resurrection River at the edge of present day Seward, but now Exit Glacier has receded 9 miles inland. As we drive near the glacier, we see a marker labeled 1899 and further on, markers for 1909 and 1924, pegged at the glacier limit in those years. We park near 1927 and hike the trail. Shari photographs me beside the 1951 marker and I snap her picture at 1978, both views with the glacier in the background. A stiff chilling breeze blows off Exit Glacier, rustling the leaves and berrylike green cones of the Sitka Alder that are the first shrubs to adapt to the rocky terrain left by the glacier. Standing at the stream pouring from the glacier we marvel at the brilliant blue light reflected from the ice (the longer wavelengths are absorbed by the glacier ice). Then we hike up along the edge of the glacier and reach a place where we can touch the dripping ice. After our return, we bicycle along the coast of Resurrection Bay until the gravel road ends at Miller’s Landing. In the late evening we watch the Sun Princess cruise ship depart from the harbor, with rows of white lights outlining its decks. Tug boats back it from its berth. Released, the ship pivots slowly in front of us before it points to sea, the giant Love Boat dwarfed by the mountains towering above the opposite shore.

(Shari) Imagine sitting on a piece of property that overlooks a bay four miles wide! Across the bay are chocolate mountains with 32 flavors of green topped with vanilla icing. Now imagine an accumulation of 20 years of junk and garbage that has never been removed. A stove that does not work and is moved outside. A car that remains where it stopped. Old tires thrown here and there not even on a pile. Rusty bicycle frames and boat parts. A lean-to made from corrugated metal covering more rusty junk. Wire grates from cars and charcoal stoves and furnaces leaning on any available spot. One lonely shoe sitting askew next to a wooden spool. This is the mess at the end of Seward. Bert and I bicycle along the gravel road past the Sea Life Center for four miles. We are headed to Miller’s Landing. Upon arriving, I am appalled at how a million-dollar view has been denigrated to a garbage dump. I would be afraid to park my motorhome there for fear it would become part of the scrap. I do not want to pick on Miller’s Landing because so much of Alaska is like this: gravel roads full of pot holes leading to what could be beautiful sights. However the owners do not choose to take care of the precious land they are sitting on and it becomes a garbage dump. It is a sorry state of affairs and even sadder for the few who care who must share the land with those that do not. At the end of the road is one house full of windows and flowers and a lawn as neat as a pin overlooking the bay. Looking forward they had their million-dollar view; looking sideways they peer onto a dump. This scene is repeated in all the little towns I have visited in Alaska. A perfect town is spoiled with the junk.

 

Day 69 - July 19, 1998 - Milepost 6248 (111 today) - Johnson Lake, AK

(Bert) Following church services - attended by more visitors than members, the members having left town for vacations - at Resurrection Lutheran where Bruce and Jen attend (Jean’s cousin who moved here from Michigan), we leave Seward on a bright sunny day. We stop at Kenai Lake for a photo of the snow capped mountains reflecting off the long 24-mile lake. At Cooper Landing we again stop to see Ed and Ruth, the boat launch hosts on the Kenai River. Ed is an avid cigar afficionado and I ask him a question that pours forth an answer gushing like uncorked champaign. "How is a Cuban cigar better than others?" I learn about Cuban tobacco growing, how cigars are hand rolled and cut, cigar taste, smell, inhaling smoke, personal preferences, government prohibitions, pricing (like wine, $15 to $200 each), packaging, cigar news groups, a California doctor and fellow cigar smoker who visited recently and probably a half-dozen other cigar topics which whizzed past me. Two hours later I am an expert on cigar smoking even though I’ve never smoked anything in my life. We notice that Ed and Ruth are burned out with being a volunteer host, a similar story we’ve already heard from Dave and Sally’s experiences. Although these jobs are advertised as two working hours per day, dedicated hosts like the four of them find the work load much greater. Ed has turned his job into full-time work by trying to do the best he can. While the results are noteworthy, the bottom line is burn out. Retirees thought they retired from work, but can find the volunteering just as confining as the paying job they left behind. When we reach Johnson Lake, we detach the toad and Shari drives on to see if Sally and Dave have saved a spot for us. She returns with the shocking news that our favorite camp hosts have pulled up stakes and left. A few minutes later I run into Bud, a park ranger, and he tells me Sally and Dave left two days ago. He (seriously) asks me if we would like to be camp hosts for a month. I decline, but might have been tempted had we no other commitments and not heard of the frustration Sally and Dave experienced. Later I learn from Jacqui, another park ranger, that they went to see Chris, the head of the upper Kenai parks division. Just as she is leaving, Jacqui kindly offers to let me check my e-mail at her office tomorrow morning. We hope Dave or Sally has left a message for us. The news depresses Shari. She really wanted to see them again and was looking forward to a few more days of salmon fishing with Dave.

(Shari) "Sally and Dave are gone!" After attending Resurrection Lutheran Church in Seward, we decide to drive to Johnson Lake to surprise Sally and Dave. I read in Saturday’s Anchorage paper that the reds were in at the Kenai River. We escape the masses of people in Seward. I think everyone and his uncle decided to visit there this weekend. The town, including the city park, is a mass of shoulder to shoulder people. In addition every night a new cruise ship makes port and stays for the day. Departing at dusk, it is lit up like a Christmas tree, making a pretty sight, as it slowly backs out, turns 180 degrees in the middle of the bay and heads to ports afar. Sally had promised to call Jean’s message service and although we did not get a message from her, I never expected her to vacate. I am surprised, bewildered, disappointed and sad. Sally and Dave are two of the world’s best. I am sorry to have missed them and now am worried about how and where they are. Not even Ed Pallan knows that they have departed or he would have mentioned it during our stop over at Cooper Landing this morning. Bud, the ranger here at Johnson Lake, tells Bert that the Davis’ left two days ago. He asks if we would like to camp hosts for a month. I don’t think so. It strikes me as a thankless job needing a thick skin to survive the lip the campers dish out. Cleaning the pit toilets is the easy part of that job. Ed and Ruth, bless their hearts, are also talking about leaving come August 1. They are tired of all the backtalk also. So here I sit awaiting Don and Jean, who left Seward later than we did. They wanted to visit Exit Glacier, which we did yesterday. I wonder what our plan is now. We have to stay until Tuesday noon to pick up pictures we left at Freddies for developing. I am so dispirited that I am ready to throw in the towel and head for Valdez without the pictures. At least the weather is wonderful with sunny skies and warm temperatures.

 

Day 70 - July 20, 1998 - Milepost 6248 - Johnson Lake, AK

(Shari) I am pleased to report that Dave and Sally are fine. Dave wrote an e-mail sometime Saturday that we just retrieved today. They are staying at Sterling about 30 miles north of here until their friends arrive. We decide to give fishing one last college try before we depart. Dave, in his e-mail said that the reds were running on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. He suggested we fish at high tide which is around 5 p.m. today. I choose to fish the Kasilof because it is closer, we do not have to pay since we have an Alaskan park day pass and I am familiar with it. Bert puts on his new waders and accompanies me on this last attempt to catch a red. My mind set on other trips was one of optimism for the catch. Today I view it as just something to do. The parking lot is jammed with cars when we arrive: a good sign. Carrying both our poles Bert leads the way through the woods, over the roots, past the bears. We arrive at the sandbar and are amazed that the sandbar has disappeared. The water now reaches the bank and there is no beach at all to be seen. Squeezing ourselves between the other fishermen on the river we note that only one other fish has been caught. Throw, snap, jerk and lift; throw, snap, jerk and lift. 999, 1000, 1001, 2050, 3000 times it goes. Soon Bert has one on and I hear the splash of a frantic fish as it struggles to get loose. It manages to free itself but we are encouraged to continue fishing. Throw, snap, jerk and throw. 3001, 4005 times. Suddenly I see Bert’s pole bend and he is slowly walking backwards. He never says a word and I have to shout at him, "Do you have a fish on?" He nods his head affirmative as he continues his backward direction. Meanwhile, I wonder how in the world we are going to beach this baby. Spying a net on the beach, I ask to all that can hear whether I can use it. I get no answers and by this time Bert’s fish is berserk, swimming upriver and then down river, thrashing and pulling and breaking water. Grabbing the net, I try to locate the fish. I see the weight that is tied 18 in. from the hook move in crazy directions. I assume the fish is causing the movement and head in the direction of the swirling weight. I swing the net over what I think is the fish. The weight goes off upstream. I run - remember I am in knee deep water with size 9 waders on size 7 feet - toward the weight and swing the net again. The weight careens toward the bank. I have that beauty cornered now and swing the net over the gray streak of fish swimming by my feet. In it goes, right into the net. I lift it up and both Bert and I have huge smiles on our faces. Oh, this is fun! Soon the man next to Bert gets one on. Then the man next to me gets one on. When is it my turn, I wonder? Whomp! My line takes off with the sinker doing its dancing trick. I walk backwards. I lost it. No, it is still there? Off it goes upstream. Now I lost it. No, off it goes downstream. This time I lost it. No, it is still on there. Bert grabs the net and aims 18 in. from the sinker and he has caught my fish. What a beauty it is and it really is bigger than Bert’s. We fish for another hour and no more fish are caught. We call it quits and head home, Bert carrying the fish and me the poles. Don meets us in the parking lot and tells us he has had no luck on the Kenai. Bert cleans the fish on the table provided. I estimate we have a good four lbs. of cleaned filets; a retail value of $32. Reading the board posted at the cleaning table, I learn more than 10,000 fish swam past that point yesterday. 240 passed over the counter at 2 p.m. today. Two of them are ours, thanks to great teachers, Dave and Sally. They would have been proud.

(Bert) Just after Jacqui arrives at her office, I send and retrieve our e-mail, a 15 minute transmission since it’s been a week since I’ve done it last. We get a message from Dave explaining their sudden departure - Sally was bitten by a camper’s dog and that became the last straw - and current location and phone number. Shari gets more details in Sally’s message to the RV-Talk news group. Jacqui is being particularly friendly with me and invites me to get e-mail at her office anytime and shows me where she hides her key. She knows Bud asked us about being camp hosts, so I wonder if she has an ulterior motive or is just being gracious. After several hours of sorting through our e-mail, Shari and I decide to try our luck at fishing the Kasilof. It’s a good thing I bought hip boots at Fred Meyer’s because the water level is higher and the gravel bed at the river’s bend is now underwater. On her first cast, Shari tangles her line in her reel and after 10 minutes of frustration she decides to cut the line and reattach the leader and weight. When she returns, she casts and catches her coat, then her arm, then her neighbor’s fishing line, then my new hip boots, then her neighbor’s line again. She misses her hat, but I’ll give her a few more casts and she may catch that too. Meanwhile, I get a great strike, bring the salmon to the surface and see him escape. Ten or 15 minutes later I’ve got another on the line and this one isn’t letting go. She zings out my line and I reel her back in. Then she pulls another 8 ft. from my reel as I try to bring her closer to shore. My two downstream neighbors start backing off as my fish zig zags through the river in a tug-of-war with me reeling and her pulling line. Shari yells to another fisherman, asking permission to use his net. I keep moving to shore. The fish is flapping in the shallow water, when finally Shari catches her in the net. Wow, what a fish! My first Alaskan fish in the two years we’ve been here. Back to casting, it only takes me a few minutes and I have another on the line. This one fights less, but still pulls heavily on my line. It’s out in the deep part of the river and I start reeling her in. Shari runs for the net while I head for the shallow shore. I get there first and do a double take on my catch: a dark gray rock, shaped like a brain on drugs and about the same consistency. Now that was some catch! I’m going to take this trophy home and mount it in my office. Shortly after my incredible catch, my downstream neighbor catches a salmon and sometime later Shari gets one too. Shari’s is a in. bigger than mine, but they are both beauties. After a long spell of no action, I tell Shari I will cast 25 more times and if nothing happens, I’ll quit. 25 casts later I quit and so do five other fishermen, all reaching the same conclusion that the run has past. I end with one fish and four strikes, three of which break water. Of the 10 fishermen on the river’s bend, five fish were caught and we got two of them. But only the greatest fisherman can claim the trophy Rock Fish.

 

Day 71 - July 21, 1998 - Milepost 6370 (122 today) - Williwaw Creek, AK

(Shari) We say goodbye to pretty Johnson Lake and our neighbors, the serenading loons. We have called this home for a total of 16 days over the past five weeks and leaving it somehow is sad. I feel like our trip is over and it is time to head home. In a sense, that is true. I am done with what I came to Alaska for: the clamming, the halibut fishing, the sockeye fishing and the meeting of my Internet buddies. The road to Freddies is familiar as we again stop to dump and obtain fresh water. While waiting in line, someone knocks on our door and asks if we could please pull up so he could get out. No sooner have we done that when we hear another loud knock. Now what we wonder? IT IS SALLY AND DAVE! They had just received their e-mail and discovered we were at Johnson Lake and quickly got in their car to find us. We hug as if we had not seen each other for years. Talking a mile a minute we exchange our news and laugh right there in the parking lot, in the dump line, in the cold and drizzle. They invite us to fish with them this afternoon and we part company promising that if not today we WILL see them again along the roads we travel in the future. After Don’s baptism in Resurrection Bay and his mineral bath in the glacier waters of the Kenai, he is not ready to fish today. (He fell in at both those places). We stick to our original plan of stopping at Williwaw Campground near Portage. Ermine had mentioned in her journal what a nice place it was and we want to see it also. It is pouring rain when we arrive and I am freezing cold. The generator decides not to work again so I defrost hamburger for chili on the stove. We sit in RTENT and watch the precipitation. Mountains exist about a block from our site, but the heavy mist and rain cover them from view. The campground is superb with big PAVED sites, well separated and landscaped. I understand there are a nature trail and a salmon viewing area also. For now that is all meaningless, as I gaze out the window at the cold damp outdoors.

(Bert) Parked in line for the dump and water refill at Fred Meyers, we are interrupted by a knock on our door. I can’t believe what I see when I push open the door. There stand Sally and Dave. We shout in surprise and hug each other like long lost friends. I’m sure the shoppers in the parking lot thought we hadn’t seen one another for years, certainly not days. Sally read Shari’s e-mail message this morning and immediately left their hideout a few miles away when they realized we would be waiting for photographs at Fred Meyer at 1 p.m. We catch up on fishing stories and episodes in their Camp Host soap opera. Then Dave invites us to fish the Kenai at 5 p.m., but we decline since we’ve already made other plans. Now we’ll never know if Dave could have made good on his guarantee of "limiting out on reds" (fish talk for catching the legal limit of Sockeye Salmon). After we pick up our photos, we drive off the peninsula to Turnagain Arm and head toward Portage Glacier, stopping at Williwaw Creek, a U.S. Forest Service campground. I sure am glad we aren’t camping with a tent. Today is the worst weather we’ve had since we came to Alaska. It’s been overcast and raining all day, with temperatures in the mid-50s. In RTENT we are warm, comfortable, dry and fully self-contained. I don’t want to think about the alternative in a tent.

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