Alaska distilled

We returned from the States July 31 and I’m just managing to get photos up of the second half of our vacation in Alaska, which could be distilled as “Fish and Cousins.”  At least they aren’t fishy cousins!

About a year ago Jeremiah’s oldest brother, Ben, moved with his family from upstate NY (where we grew up) to Sterling, Alaska.  Ben and Jeannette have 13 children, so in the interest of travel efficiency we decided to make Alaska Hub Shaw, and asked Jeremiah’s parents and siblings if they could join us there.  Plus, July happens to be Salmon Season in Alaska….

Our friends Mark and Maria drove all the way to Anchorage to pick us up in their campervan, which became our home for the next two weeks. We stayed with Mark and Maria when we came through Alaska five years ago on our way to New Zealand.
They live in Soldotna, a town 15 minutes down the road from Sterling.

I’ve never before experienced a road trip in a campervan–it’s quite a luxury to relax on the bed in the back while the miles slip by and someone else drives. Thanks Mark!

On our way out of Anchorage we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where all manner of Alaskan animals are kept, some destined for re-introduction into the wild, and others enjoying a long-term home because for some reason or other they’ve become unfit for wild life. We happened upon the bears at feeding time, both brown bears and black bears. A brown bear was chomping on a whole (plucked) chicken, bones and all….it certainly gives a good demonstration of not only its appetite, but also the power of its jaws.  Once arrived in Sterling, we parked up the campervan outside of Ben and Jeannette’s house along side the campervan where Nana and Papa (Jeremiah’s parents) were staying.  Maria even lent us her car, so we were all set up for both a place to stay and for transport–super generous!

We caught up with Mark and Maria a few times, this time at Kenai River Brewery. Maria is about as interested in breweries as the kids, but Mark is a big brew fan.

Over at Mark and Maria’s house for dinner one evening, we admired all their Alaska artwork on their walls. They have amassed quite a collection since we were there five years ago. It’s neat to see how they celebrate their local community, whether it was in Owego, NY (where we met them) or whether it is in Soldotna, AK.

It’s been two years since we’ve seen all the cousins, and we studied names ahead of time. I’m from a family of only four, but I remember appreciating if people could get our names straight. Here (left to right) is Andy, Boaz, Luke, Nathaniel, Ben (father), Mercianna,

The nice thing about a huge family is that “running the kids through the showers” doesn’t actually involve me doing any showering. The olders are quite capable and paired up with the youngers, resulting in clean scalps without any input from Aunt Molly. Uno with the youngers was a civilized affair, turns taken and rules followed. Uno with the olders was a contact sport, I’ve never seen the game played quite like it! But then again, I never had brothers.

Speaking of never having brothers…my own mother always warned me about water fights with boys, and watching the shenanigans of this crew I can see why. Talk about escalation. Ben and Jeannette remain as peaceful as Buddha though the war may rage around them. I suppose as a parent you would have to, to preserve one’s sanity. It brings up an interesting question about child rearing–is it better to let kids feel the natural consequences of their actions (if you throw water at your older brother, he will drag you face first into the frigid Skilak lake), or to intervene and attempt to teach a less-natural-but-more-wordy way of dealing with conflict? I don’t know.

The adults, enjoying the water show.

Naomi had a great time with Elizabeth (three years old, same as her) as well as with Mercianna, who is a little older than Milo.

Naomi is stubborn. Surprise, surprise. Sometimes when something doesn’t go her way, she just stops in her tracks and refuses to walk. With my uncooperative back I couldn’t carry her, but often Merci would come to her rescue.

Despite being rough with one another, the big boys were really sweet with the little ones. Here Naomi is perched on Elijah’s lap.

One evening we brought our kids into town, and Caleb, the oldest son, came along.
We stopped at the town market and wanted to have a wander with the kids, but ours were crabby and just wanted to sit in the car and watch the tablet. “If you come out,” Caleb wheedled, “there might be something nice like ice cream.” He treated them to the ice cream truck, and afterwards happily sat in the car with them watching Octonauts. That’s a pretty special 18-year-old!

S’mores with cousins, definitely an experience to treasure.

POPCORN and s’mores, to be complete. There’s quite a gang of popcorn thugs! Clockwise from the hat are Levi, Luke, James and Nathaniel.

One evening we went on a hike with some of the olders. Well, Jeremiah and his sister Missy went on a hike, I puttered along behind the gang nursing a sore back and hoping that the loud crew ahead of me had cleared out the bears from the vicinity of the trail. How in the world are you supposed to tell the difference between a grizzly bear attack and when he starts to eat you? ? Wouldn’t missing an arm be a bit too late to start fighting back? This helpful sign was at the trail head.

There is some fantastic hiking to be had in the Chugach Range, and originally Jeremiah and I had planned to take a couple days away and explore….but my back going bad just before our travel put a kibosh on those plans. However, I did make it up this far along the Skyline ridge.

Here’s the hiking crew at the top. On the way back, barreling down the trail, they nearly ran headlong into a bear. Fortunately it was a black bear and not looking for trouble, and it moved off.

Jeremiah spent quite a bit of time fishing, both with the cousins and his dad, and with our friend Mark. The reds weren’t at full tilt until nearly the end of our trip, but here he is with his three-fish-a-day limit out of the Kenai River.

If only every day dawned blue like this….

Barbara Lavallee is an Alaskan artist who I love. Her characters look so cheerful and full of happiness and wonder. Here’s her take on salmon season in Anchorage. Pretty spot on for Soldotna too.

Papa (Jeremiah’s dad) is not really much of a fisherman, but even he squeezed into a pair of waders and got into the action. He even managed to catch some salmon, eventually!

If you are an Alaskan Resident you play under different rules than the sport fishermen. You are allowed to “dip net,” or stand in the river with a giant net scooping up salmon as they migrate up the river. As “head of household” you are allowed 25 fish, and 10 or 15 more per additional person in the house. In other words, you can fill up your freezer. I have an enduring memory of the dip netters at the mouth of the Kenai from visiting 5 years ago with Mark and Maria. Mounds of fish heads on the beach. Children running and playing in the frigid ocean water. We made a pilgrimage back to the site this time, and though the fishing wasn’t quite as lively, it was still a sight to behold.

Someone was well on their way to bagging their harvest.

Alaskan residents from the interior come to the coast and set up camp to get their yearly quota of fish. Jeremiah thought it looked like fun, camping with a purpose. To me it looked cold, fishy and uncomfortable….but if the kids had buddies and it was a family tradition, I guess I could imagine it.

The beach had a tide-line of scales. The level of fish carnage made me wonder how any managed to get far enough up stream to spawn.

When Jeremiah asked me what I wanted to do and see in Alaska, my number one desire was to see salmon spawning. To that end we made a pilgrimage to the Russian River, to a well-known viewing spot at some falls. Sure enough, the fish were jumping. They’re crazy! They launch themselves up these waterfalls, crashing into rocks and getting swept back down in the current. A bunch were stacked up in the pool below the falls, scales turning brilliant red. I took a little video. It probably won’t look as exciting in replay as it was in person, but for me seeing these energetic fish was definitely a highlight.

The walk to see the fish was about 5 miles round trip, and the kids did great. Here’s Aunt Missy with Elizabeth and Naomi.

Nana and the kids, at the fish waterfall.

My other obsession was glaciers. Portage glacier was accessible with a boat tour, and we dragged the kids along. Glaciers are receding rapidly, they won’t be as easy to see in the future….but the kids don’t grasp that. Neither do the Alaskans, apparently, who drive massive trucks and don’t bother about recycling.

Cheese! Nana, Papa, Aunt Missy, and us at Portage Glacier.

Cheese again! This one is Exit Glacier, and one of the most interesting things about it is that along the access road to the tourist parking lot are signs that show the end of the glacier in the late 1800s and through the 1900s. It’s been shrinking rapidly. It feels a bit funny to be posing with big grins in front of what is essentially an endangered species, gleefully ignoring the rising ocean and the part we just played in it, flying half way around the world on a big jet.

Homer Spit is about two hours from Sterling, the halibut fishing capital of the world. Ben has a beloved boat he dragged to Alaska all the way from NY, and he had been working on getting it going the whole time we were there. Just at the end of our visit the engine was given the thumbs up and all twenty of us hove off with two campervans, a boat, a truck, a car and a ton of fishing gear for an overnight at Homer.

I think it’s a challenge packing for a camping trip for our family–I was very impressed with the logistics Jeannette managed to get her crew fed and bedded down in Homer.

The boat was launched promptly upon arrival, and a contingent went out in search of halibut.

Moms and youngers stayed back on the beach, admiring the boats….

…..walking around the spit….

…and chatting while the kids played. I haven’t spent a lot of time with Jeannette before this trip, but this time we really enjoyed each other’s company, talking about families, relationships, children, husbands…the stuff of life.

No halibut on that first run, but they came back with a good haul of salmon.

The next morning a second shift went out early and this time they found halibut.

Here’s the less glorious part of fishing–cleaning fish. None of the kids were that keen, but the dads did their duty and packed all the fish away.

The local authorities at Homer provide very nice fish cleaning stations and big bins for disposing of fish scraps. I suppose if the scraps are left around it becomes a major bear hazard. I think all these unsavory parts go to the land fill…..tells you we live in a country where people have plenty to eat.

So there we have it, Alaska distilled. Cousins.

Fish.

Cousins and Fish!

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2 thoughts on “Alaska distilled

  1. Molly, this is so great! Read and laughed yesterday, and read bits out loud to Martyn. He grinned, too. (Especially the “face first” dragging into lake part :P) Where I worked in Skagway, we had salmon, literally, going upstream behind the bushes where the dog kennels were. Mushers would sometimes dip net them out and feed them to the dogs… It was “pink salmon”, apparently unpalatable for human consumption :). And Jeanette’s THIRTEEN kids! Wow… Miss you.

  2. Such memories you made in Alaska – & left behind for others too! Thrilled to have seen you all again & hope for many more encounters through the years!

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