September 3-September 30--Coastal Alaska
September 17 Anchorage, AK
We planned to leave Anchorage today, we really did. The Kaltenborns were all off early, and we were just making a few phone calls before leaving for Girdwood. But the morning paper warned of high winds, especially on the Turnagain Arm, the body of water our road would parallel. Then a radio report warned of winds up to 70mph, and seas of 12 feet! Clearly we could pick a better day for heading down the road.
Patti called the Captain Cook, Anchorage's big downtown hotel, and they said they would love to host us, so we decided to stay in this city another night. We spent the day making phone calls and decisions. Would we buy a truck and camper, as we have planned, and drive home? Or fly, and ship the bike? If we bought a vehicle, would it be new or used? Could we even get financing here in this town where we are strangers? If we flew, then what? Our old truck is on it's last legs, and our camper is in worse shape yet. We didn't arrive at any answers, but we gathered information and data, and began weighing the pros and cons.
At the Captain Cook we enjoyed some of the most luxurious accommodations yet. The view of Anchorage and the Cook Inlet was magnificent, and the staff and management couldn't do enough for us. We made more phone calls, watched a movie, and retired.
September 18 Anchorage AK to Girdwood, AK
Today will be remembered as the windiest day of a windy tour. We got out of town with a mere headwind, a 10 mph breeze that would be memorable enough by itself. When we got to the Turnagain Arm, where the road hugs the shoreline, we were greeted with a steady 30 mph wind, with occasional gusts that nearly brought us to a standstill. Using gears usually reserved for climbing steep hills, we churned at the pedals in a constant effort to maintain 7mph. Fortunately, the twists and turns in the road and the huge mountains on our left gave us occasional shelter, and the wind actually decreased as the day wore on. We rested where we could hide behind rocks, and lunched at a lodge half way to our destination. Arriving in the evening, we got a good look at Girdwood, Alaska's only ski town. The access road was not too steep, and we knocked on Win Faulkner's door just before dark. A small party ensued, with Win's sisters Elizabeth and Sarah, and their husbands Aaron and Darren. They described the skiing and the life at Aleyeska, the state's sole ski resort, and Ellie discussed racing with Darren, who recently won the state mountain bike cross country championship.
We will never forget meeting Stumpy Faulkner, Win's father, who lives across the road. He is a local legend who came to Alaska in 1953 with "a pregnant wife, a bitch in heat, and fifty dollars in my pocket." He put his Harvard education to work, raised a whole bunch of great kids, and made his mark on Alaska. Now he is an old character who seldom makes a serious remark, always makes a joke, and has a local ski trail named after him.
September 19 Girdwood, AK to Summit Lake Lodge, AK
Stumpy gave us a tour of Girdwood in his van while we postponed our departure to see if the rain would let up. No such luck. Ten miles down the road we took shelter at an information center near Portage, where the 1964 earthquake had left houses and barns sunk in a four-foot deep swamp. Shortly thereafter we began climbing the last big pass on our tour, Turnagain Pass, a piece of cake compared to some that we have climbed. Today's rain made it challenging enough, though, and several stops along the steep part cooled us off a bit too much. The first stop was Stumpy, with refreshments and jokes. Then a reporter with the local paper took some pictures and interviewed us. Near the top, we came upon a couple in their truck having engine trouble. We let them use our cell phone to call for help. That didn't take long but we were freezing by the time we got going again. Luckily, the rain let up at the top of the pass and we rode down the other side in relative comfort. A few more hills brought us to Summit Lake Lodge, where the proprietors decided that we would stay in their cabin for free. There is something about a warm, dry room after a wet, rainy day outside. Just turning on the heater brings a smile to the face.
September 20 Summit Lake Lodge, AK to Sterling, AK
This was one of those memorable days when hills, wind and weather combine to make us feel like super-bikers. We rode sixty-two miles, mostly downhill or with a tailwind, in cool, cloudy weather with only a few sprinkles here and there to remind us that we were on the Kenai Peninsula in September. The employees of Gwin's in Cooper Landing were waiting for us by the side of the road with an invitation for lunch. This legendary lodge has been here since the road was gravel and ended here. Fishermen attracted to the salmon in the local rivers have been their stock-in-trade for decades, and their old-fashioned menu suited us perfectly. Nice folks.
We rode through an area of lakes and rivers, rolling hills, and hiking trails to nearby low summits. It reminded us of New England, except that the towns were forty miles apart instead of ten. In Sterling we found Nickey's, a restaurant and motel where the proprietor looked up our web site within a few minutes of our arrival. We stayed in a nice room after a family-style meal.
September 21 Sterling, AK to Nikiski, AK
It was nice to have family as our destination today. Tom, Patti's brother, and Michele, his wife, have lived in Nikiski for ten years. I visited them years ago when I fished with Tom in Kodiak. The ride to Soldotna was easy. Before we left Sterling we got a message that Odie, the mother of our hostess Nickey, would love to feed us at her deli in Soldotna. We met Tom & Michele there and had the biggest sandwiches I have ever seen in my life. Odie bakes bread in pans roughly the size of a kitchen sink, then cuts slices so thick they resemble lumber. It took the whole Romp Family, with help from the in-laws, to polish off three of them.
At Tom's in nearby Nikiski we found our regular clothing, shipped from Vermont, that we would need for the ride home. It is hard to describe the pleasure we all felt after we showered and, for the first time since March, put on jeans, flannel shirts, thick socks and hiking shoes. Simple pleasures made great by the passage of time.
September 22 to September 27 Nikiski, AK
We spent five days here, not only because the hospitality was great, but because we wanted to arrive in Homer, 80 miles away, on October 1 as planned. We were plenty busy during our stay. Billy dug holes and poured concrete footings for a deck, with Henry's help on the tape measure. Ellie learned to sew fishing nets, since Tom and Michele were preparing to take their boat, the Arctic Storm, on a shrimping expedition. Patti spent several days in Michele's garden, weeding and preparing it for winter, which is not far off. Billy and Ellie got sore muscles helping to move a couple of tons of cable from one spool to another, more preparation for the shrimp season. We all enjoyed nightly dips in the outdoor hot tub, the hottest we have ever been in.
During this layover we bought a pickup truck in Soldotna, drove it up to Anchorage and got a slide-in camper for it. That process thrust us back into the real world in a hurry. Insurance, registration, loan applications, driver's licenses, IRS forms. All this was difficult for a couple who had not even opened their mail for six months. We managed to get it out of the way in a few days.
We also had a great chiropractic adjustment at Dr. Koob's in Kenai. We enjoyed riding down there on the bike with no luggage. We found the area to be beautiful. Tom and Michele are proud of their area and took the long way around whenever they could, just to show us more of it. The people here are certainly nice.
The highlight of our stay here was the night Tom made a huge bonfire. We all sat around it and talked about our lives, our families, the trip, and Alaska. It was cold, but with no wind, and we kept warm by adjusting our distance from the fire and eating the warm food Michele was cooking on the coals. As the fire and the conversation died down, the moon rose big and white behind the spruces, and we could hear the crazy calls of loons on the lake. For a while nobody spoke. Timmy was sleeping in my lap, snoring a bit. Looking up, the Big Dipper was high in the sky, the North Star much higher than we ever see it in New England. The stars were very bright.
September 28 Nikiski, AK to Kasilof, AK
Leaving Nikiski we felt strong and rested, especially since we were lightening our load by leaving our camping equipment behind. Patti had arranged lodging for the next few days, choosing from among the many offers we received from inns, lodges, Chambers of Commerce, and residents of the Kenai Peninsula. A nice flat route along the Cook Inlet, and cool dry weather helped keep us happy. We added eight miles to the trip by passing the Testumena Lodge by four miles, then turning back when we realized our mistake. Their sign had blown down in the recent stormy weather. John and Susie at the lodge were happy to see us. The kids were in awe of the lodge's claim to fame: 17,280 hats covering every bit of the walls and ceiling in the lobby, restaurant, and bar. Patti added hers.
We had a nice dinner a few miles away with Lani Kai and her family. When we met her in Anchorage she was finishing up a course in satellite mapping. Now she was hosting her in-laws from the lower 48, who were there for the fly-fishing on the local rivers. We learned a lot from them about the local culture on the Kenai Peninsula.
September 29 Kasilof, AK to Ninilchik, AK
By getting a fairly early start, we managed to avoid most of the rain, which was forecast to be heavy. The route gave us glimpses of Cook Inlet and some views of the mountains on the Alaskan Peninsula on the other side. We pushed on without stopping to eat, enjoying the last few hours before a big storm system reached us. Arriving in Ninilchik hungry, we ate big at the only restaurant. By then it was raining, and we got only a bit wet on the last mile to Al and Cookie's house. They run Leisure Time Charters, bringing their long-time clients out to the big salmon and halibut, then straight back to their cabin and to Cookie's home cooking. Al and I sat and exchanged stories while the cabin warmed up. He came here in the fifties, before power or pavement had reached the area. He and his wife have built a rich life here through hard work and careful planning. They could easily retire, but they love the friends they have made in the charter business, and hard work suits them. "Besides," Al says. "I'd be fishing most every day anyway. Might as well bring along somebody to pay for the gas!"
Cookie, a proud Okie (native Oklahoman), displayed her heritage with the best corn bread and beans I have ever tasted. Sleep came easy.
September 30 Ninilchik, AK to Anchor Point, AK
From this cabin on Al & Cookie's "knob" it would be possible to see four or five huge snow-covered volcanoes over on the other side of Cook Inlet. But today, rain and clouds are all we can see besides a strip of beach ("Best clamming in the universe!" says Al) and the town of Ninilchik, it's street lights still glowing in the 7:00 AM twilight. Dodging raindrops across the yard to Cookie's kitchen, we were treated to a fisherman's breakfast. It was hard to leave their warm house and mount up in the cold rain; it was 11:00 AM before we did so. By the time we got to Clam Gulch the rain had let up some, and we spied a hand-lettered sign that said, "CLAM GULCH STABLES. COWGIRLS INC. HOME OF THE $5 RIDE" That was enough for Ellie. She took two.
When we got on the bike, the rain started again, and it rained all the way to Anchor Point. The school there was expecting us, and we did a presentation for 100 kids in the gym. Timmy so charmed the principal that he wound up wearing his tie; he has it on still, smiley faces and all. The kids were great, and had us riding the bike around the gym. Jan Gladish from the Chamber of Commerce brought us Anchor Point t-shirts and pins, with an official welcome. The best part was that our accommodations, compliments of the Anchor River Inn, were right across the road. Walking our bike over, we learned that dinner and breakfast were to be on the house. After a huge, Alaska-sized meal, we spoke with Rebecca Brown from the newspaper and visited with Jan in our motel room, which by now was complete with a clothesline holding five pairs of wet everything.