Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hiking to the Highest Lodge in the Eastern United States-Mount LeConte Lodge

A few times in your life, you are offered a unique opportunity to do something. Many people do not realize this opportunity in their life and simply pass it by. Others say I don't have time, maybe another day or another time in my life. There are a few that say "hey, I am doing this at all cost! I may not have another opportunity!".  This is what fell my way recently with this trip and it will go down as another one that I will remember until the day I die. 
This is a story and an adventure trip about Mount LeConte Lodge in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee (USA). Pack your day pack up and go along with me. All you need is a change of clothes, some lunch on the trail, water, and a few toiletry items. Before we start, here is a background on this amazing place. It's impact on my wife, my friends, and myself will live with us forever. 
About 8 years ago, I went to my doctor and I was telling him about all the backpacking trips I had been on that year in the hopes he would tone down on chewing me out for high cholesterol (it didn't work). He replied with "my son and I just got back from Mount LeConte Lodge in the Smokies and had a great weekend". I told him I had never heard of this and he began to explain. I consider myself to know a lot about the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and he threw one over on me with this one. The ole "Google search tool" later on when I got home was the answer to a lot of questions he presented by telling me about this lodge. I became more curious and decided to get a group up and go. For 3 years, I fought to try and secure reservations at this amazing place and failed. I called and called, sent E-mails, and no luck. They either did not answer the reservation phone or never returned E-mails. My good camping friend Brett changed all of that this in 2011. He made it happen. How, I don't know but he made it happen. That is all that matters!
Mount LeConte, is one of the three tallest mountains in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It is right up there with Clingman's Dome (6,643 feet), Mount Guyot (6,621feet), and then Mount LeConte at 6,593 feet.  There is controversy over this mountain's name and which member of the LeConte family it was named for, so we will not go there. Paul Adams, an enthusiastic hiker and explorer that had moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in the early 1920's started out with tents up on the mountain to promote the beauty of the mountain to customers. He later built a lodge. The National Park Service took over the land where the lodge is located but contracts the use of the lodge out, continuing a tradition that was started many years ago. Mount LeConte lodge is now a series of buildings or cabins. The main office and lounge area were built in the 1960's, but the first lodge built still stands. On this trip, we got the honor of staying in this first cabin that was built. The first site was actually at a different spot, just a short piece back up the trail. The current lodge cabins can accommodate a total of about 50 people. The most amazing part of the lodge is that it is a trip back in time! Relics from the 20's are still up there. There is no power available, and only kerosene lamps light your way in the cabins.  The workers and all guests MUST hike to this place. Lamas are used twice a week to deliver supplies up the mountain. A helicopter changes out the propane tanks every so often. This practice has only been done the last 3-4 years. Prior to the propane tanks, they had used kerosene heaters since the 1920's. The lodge is open from March until November of each year, and some lonesome sole or soles have the duty of staying at the cabins all winter long to watch and care for this amazing place during it's closure of the winter months.  More about this place later on. For now, grab your pack and lets head out in the car to get to the trail head!

Sunday morning, November 6, 2011-We meet at a pancake house in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennesee for a large breakfast to start the hike out. The route we are taking up is one of about 5 trails available to reach the lodge. On this trip, we have picked the shortest (5.3 miles) but also the steepest! After eating, we drive on down to the Sugarlands Visitor Center of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park to meet all parties in the group. After we depart from there headed on up to Chimney Tops and Newfound Gap, we stop just past Chimney Tops on the left at Alum Cave Trailhead.  Being the "geek" that I am on electronics, I am constantly watching my altimeter watch as we climb higher and higher in altitude with our cars.  It is here at the Alum Cave Parking we get out all of our packs, hiking staffs, and mentally start preparing for the big challenge. My wife has been nervous about this part for some 2 months. I too, not having been hiking in a while have some visions of what lay ahead. It is a beautiful day. The high temperature in the low areas is in the mid 60's. The high at Mount LeConte is in the upper 50's. Lows are forecast in the mid to upper 30's, so not too bad with the cold (Interestingly enough, Mount LeConte has never recorded a temperature warmer than 80 degrees F due to it's high elevation). An almost full moon is scheduled to greet us in the night, so with almost no clouds, a spectacular sunset looks like it will play out for us tonight! At 9:18 a.m. we head out, with Brett, my camping buddy and friend leading the way with his wife. This will be his 5th trip up, and he knows this place well. Ask him and he will tell you 5 x50 is how many more times he will go and stay at this place. He loves it. I know now that if Brett loves it, I am sure I will too.  Steve and I have talked about this place for years. It just never seemed possible to actually get a reservation. We start out stopping at a sign not too far down the trail that says "Mount LeConte Lodge-5.0 miles". We snap pictures here to start out the epic journey (in our own little worlds). The normal rate for most folks to ascend to the top is 3-4 hours. It is never a race for anyone, at least you would think. I soon found out that it is for some. In our party, we had all skill levels of hikers, so Brett had told us that we can take our time. We have all day to get to the top. It is a good thing we did have all day, because that is about what it took. One of the members in our party had recently been diagnosed with only 60 percent of his lungs were working up to full and some others in the party had not had much hiking experience. For the first hour, we marched along at a fairly brisk pace, partly because we were refreshed and ready to go and second because the terrain was not that bad. After about an hour into the hike, it quickly became apparent that this will be a "mind game" to overcome the uphill forces of nature and gravity! I had warned my wife beforehand that hiking in this kind of terrain involves a lot of mind games. Your mind goes through waves of "I am not sure I can make this" to "Just a little bit further, I think I will make it just fine". People that do not hike very much and take on this trip don't know how to cope with this. I had some good hiking friends early on warn me about this. If you hike/walk/backpack long distances, your "mental drive" is just as important as your "physical drive".  If you allow your mind to tell you for 3 hours that you cannot make this trip then guess what, you probably won't make this trip because you quit. "Mind over body". Ever hear this expression? That is everything in hiking in remote wilderness areas. As we walk and walk and walk, making our way up the mountain, the beauty gets better and better. If you take your thoughts off the pains in your legs and focus on the beauty, it becomes a much better trip. The crowd of 3 couples and one individual on this trip (we will come back down with another couple that arrived a few days before us) starts to spread out as the hours go by. As you pause to catch your breath, you are stunned by the beauty around you. With the elevation, most all of the leaves are gone off of the trees, and so this yields to spectacular views looking across the mountains.  Around lunchtime, we stop at near the halfway point. It is Alum Cave. The smell of sulfur is clear in the air here. This was a key ingredient in the making of gun powder, and so I am sure this place has some historical stories to tell. It is a large bluff type shelter with the pungent odor of sulfur. We sit down, catch our breath, and grab some lunch. With such a steep angle of terrain, it makes for some really weird pictures (see attached of crew with packs and hiking staffs-Photo courtesy of Dewanna Jones). Around 2 p.m., the mental anguish kicks in with everyone except Brett and his wife, who have made this journey so many times. Brett informs us that we are about to encounter the worst part of the hike. It is the last mile and a half. We later named it the "torture mile". It is a very steep incline that just keeps going up and up and up with little to no flat areas. At times, the trail gets very narrow with cables secured into the rock to help you hang on and keep from slipping down the extremely steep ridges the trails are built on (see picture of trail area like this). The edge drops off hundreds of feet in places. If you are afraid of heights, just don't look off the edge and look straight up the trail and you will be fine. Many of the trail parts have solid rock which at times were slippery with ice left from the snow that had melted and refroze. We were told the lodge had remnants of snow from a few days before and this explained the ice. I have to say, this is the toughest part of the trail. It is a good thing that it is in the last mile or so. It it were halfway, many folks would simply turn around and go back. As we made our journey up, I had forgotten to zero the trip odometer on my GPS, and so all we had to go on was the elevation. Knowing the top of the mountain was 6,593 feet, just about everyone in the party was asking me what our current elevation was. I had a watch on me with an altimeter, and so I just kept calling the elevation out and informed everyone of our progress by shouting out elevation levels at various times. We also asked folks coming down the mountain from the lodge "how much further". Both of this methods has pros and cons. How much further might depend on how much in shape they were. Elevation levels being called out may also discourage you as well. You are are 5,400 feet, your legs are shot, and you know you have another 1,000 feet to go! Not good on the mental state! The average time to get to this neat place is about 3-4 hours you may recall.  On this day with all the parties, it took us 6 hours! As we get near the top, the elevation finally leveled out. After 15 more minutes, we arrived! Mount LeConte Lodge, elevation 6,593 feet. The flat hiking trail was EXTREMELY slick from the packed down snow that had become ice from so much foot traffic. We had brought along foot traction to add to our shoes. It was such a short stretch to the lodge that we decided to just take our time and not fool with putting them on our boots. Final arrival time was 3:05 p.m. EST.


Arriving at the lodge offers a unique view that you might not expect. Extremely old cabins, wooden roofs, and a about as rustic as you can go in appearance. No modern day brilliant colored signs, but rather simple wooden signs that pointed the way- Dining Hall, Cabins, and Lodge Office all with arrows. The now famous signs that are hanging above the dining hall show today's date, something that is changed out manually every day. The main focus areas of the lodge are the dining hall, the office/lounge, where you can purchase shirts, mail a letter from the lodge (transported down by lamas), the rest rooms in which are housed in two buildings. One building is the older "latrine" style (rarely used now), and the newer flush toilets (heavily used and appreciated).  The remaining buildings are used for storage, employee cabins, or for guests. They vary in size and accommodations. Depending on how large of a party you have may determine what type/size of cabin you are given.  Upon arrival, we are greeted with hot chocolate or coffee. I must say, that was the best hot chocolate I have had in a long time! The first view many people get after being greeted with a warm cup of chocolate is the view out the dining room deck. It is spectacular! You look down from over 6,000 feet into the valley where you can see the cities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and at the base of the mountain, Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Right out in front of the deck down below is the cabins of the employees as well as a bear trap, weather station, and propane tanks lined up with a fence around them. Why would you mention this detail you might ask? Because they all have their own stories. First, the propane tanks: Since the 1920's, the cabins have all been heated by kerosene. The lamps at night use them as well. About 3-4 years ago, it was decided to switch all cabins over to propane gas. From talking to others that stayed in the past, this was very much welcome. The cabins have black walls and black pictures hanging on the walls from the soot from using kerosene heat and lamps. The lamps alone, put out a lot of soot. The tanks are switched out from time to time using a large helicopter that carries one off and sets another refilled one down. I would love to see this task done up here! The Bear trap: Well, not much explanation here, other than the fact that from time to time they have a bear problem up here. There were bear warnings out by the Park Service on this trip as a matter of fact. With Mount LeConte shelter with backpackers and food being brought up and cooked outdoors not far down the trail from the lodge, bears that are really hungry will stray in the area, mainly at night. If they become too bad, they set the bear trap up at the lodge. Interestingly enough, all of the cabins up here have strong wire like cage material over the windows. This is to keep some bear from wanting to crash the party I suppose. The lodge encourages everyone to not even leave food they brought up with them in the cabins. Not so much from the standpoint of bears, but mice. They are and have been a horrible problem until this action was taken. Now, residents are asked to bring ANY of the food they brought up and are asked to put in a metal can in the lounge area for the night. 

Last the weather station: It is interesting to point out that in the hottest of ever recorded summers, Mount LeConte has never been above 80 degrees F. This is the place to be in the summer heat! The flip side of that is cold. Man do they see so bitter cold up here unprotected. Snow is quite frequent for the south up at this altitude. It basically has it's own weather system this high up in the mountains. It reminds me of Alaska. No weather forecast is 100 percent accurate. The mountains have their own patterns of weather that can be unpredictable. 
After some warm drink and rest, we head over into our cabin and get it ready before darkness and suppertime. The cabin we are in will sleep about 5-6 couples. Again, it was the first lodge there. Other cabins around sleep less than that. They are all extremely old. There is an old table with a kerosene lantern by our bed. It also has a bucket to fill warm water available from the kitchen and wash up in your cabin. Soap, empty hot chocolate/coffee mugs and matches are all on the table for use. Full bathing is not possible at the lodge, but small washings or "bird baths" as my mother used to call them are for everyone. That is the reason for the bucket.  Looking at the age of this cabin does two things to people. They either fall in love immediately and are ready to stay, or for some, it looks to old and creepy to be happy. It was no problem for any of us. When you are this tired after walking 5.3 miles, anything looks good! Before we settle in, there is still plenty to do, so lets get going!


Well, they may have gotten your attention. It might as well be called that. The standard thing you do at Mount LeConte is to hike just under a mile on up to the real top of the mountain (LeConte Lodge is really not at the TOP of the mountain) to see the sunset. THAT is a "must do" if you have the slightest bit of strength left in you to do. On this day, about 40 people hiked up the continuing incline making it's way to the top. Couple with that, ice that was stepped on, glazed over, and you have some really bad conditions. Most all of the ones in our team went except two. They stayed back at the cabin in the warmth. The rest of us braved the elements and headed to the top. Reaching the top of Mount LeConte is absolutely stunning! No words ever written here can describe the breeze, the smell, the panoramic view, the sun of God's beauty shining down on all the mountains around and underneath you. Sitting down, we all wait with anticipation for the sun's moment to remember. As we glance around, Steve points out the small tower at the top of the mountain across from us. He or someone around us points out this is Clingman's Dome, the highest point. The trouble is, you feel like you are even with it, so you don't feel like it is taller than you. As everyone sits around, talks, laughs, and carry on and waiting for the moment, many cameras on tripods, binoculars, and video cameras are all posed for the moment. Finally, God's light show kicks in gear wide open as the sun starts setting, setting the stage for colors changing, patterns, sun dogs (sun hitting high cirrus ice clouds) and light rays being cast and shown. It is truly a spiritual experience. One that I will never forget. How could watching the sun go down be such a big deal you ask? Well, you have to be there and you will know exactly what I am talking about! It provokes a mental stimulus that is hard to beat. It is similar to those sunsets people describe on the ocean. As the sun disappears over the horizon, some claps and some "wows" are heard among the crowd. Unreal! 


After a breathtaking sunset with little clouds and miles and miles of visibility, we make our way down, slowly! The ice has just further froze and so getting down the rocks coming down in elevation proved to be a lot more than some bargained for! At times, it was downright treacherous! We finally made it down the mountain back to the lodge, and about the time we did, we hear the familiar sound of a triangle announcing dinner time! Time to eat! When you think of how many years they have made this familiar sound at the lodge announcing dinner, it truly is amazing to be here. Supper yields some very hungry people! After making such a long hike, anything, and I mean just about anything is mouth watering. First up, they bring out a half of a peach, potato soup and cornbread. After everyone indulges and partakes that, they bring round two. It is roast beef, cream potatoes, green beans, gravy if you want it. Top the meal off with a large thick chocolate chip cookie that is sliced like a brownie. If you want seconds and thirds, they are more than happy to feed it to you. It was one amazing meal after a long 5 mile day. The sunset and the meal just topped it off! Now, time to walk over to the lounge area and sit in old time rocking chairs around the stove. That was awesome as well. We talked for about an hour, resting with the meals settling in our stomachs. This is times you don't forget about. It is a time where you don't want it to end. It did though. Some rather wild and loud card playing folks at the table behind us suddenly started drowning out the conversations, and so we moved over to the old living room of our cabin. We talked for about another hour and then all decided to head to bed. The original plan was for some of us to get up early enough to watch the sun come up the next morning on the other side of the mountain. As the evening moves on, that ideal is becoming harder and harder to full fill. With every muscle aching in our bodies, most everyone decides, "I think I will pass". With warm and toasty propane gas heaters in every room, the night saw little need of much blankets, except for my wife. She shook and shivered all night long from cold. I don't really know why. I stayed very comfortable. One of the long time friends of Brett, whose name is Pat who had been many times with his wife Jennie, commented that the normal is if you sleep on the top bunk, the heaters will run you out and you lay half naked on top of the bunk bed burning up. If you sleep on the bottom of the bunk beds (they are regular sized bunk beds), you will freeze all night. They explained it all! Just before we went to bed, the moon, almost at full was shining brightly down on us. It yielded a spectacular view of the mountains and the valley at night. The sun was so bright, we were fascinated to see that the solar panels that have "auto trackers" to follow the sun during the day, were following the moon that night because it was so bright! 


At about 5 in the morning, my wife and I had about all of the bladder being full that we could stand. It is one those times laying in bed when your body says "nope, I am NOT allowing you to go back to sleep until you address this bladder problem." We both decided to get up and make the short hike over to the rest rooms to settle this. When I went out, I let her go on and I stayed out for a little bit. Words here cannot come close to describing the nighttime sky. There were billions of stars out that could be seen since the moon had gone down. I cannot remember how long it has been since I saw this many stars out. With such a high altitude, you forget how clear the air is up here! I could have stayed out for hours, but after my wife returns to me from the rest room and I address my bladder problem, we head back for a couple of more hours of sleep. 


Monday morning, November 7, 2011-Morning yields a blue sky, beautiful sunlight, and warmer temperatures. The low was only in the upper 30's. Pretty good considering this is November. I begin the cursed task of packing things up slowly, getting fresh water from the well, and then waiting for the breakfast bell sounding to come and eat. Several people were up just before 8 a.m. standing outside for the cue that breakfast was ready. The rest rooms were full, so you knew most everyone was up and ready to dive in for round two of a great meal. As we sit down to eat, I ran over and shoot some video with my iPhone. This moment has to be captured to share! Breakfast starts with pancakes. Later, grits (a southern thing), eggs and ham are brought out. It was amazing. I was told later that most of the supper was just canned goods, but hey, I will take it any day in my book. It was awesome! Breakfast was extremely good. The glass at another table taps with a loud noise like someone is making an announcement. The crowd quiets down and one of the employees at the lodge says "I would like to welcome everyone to Mount LeConte Lodge. We hope you enjoyed your stay with us and we hope you have a safe journey back down the mountain. We invite you back anytime you can come and stay with us. Be safe and remember to pack out all of the trash you brought up here. Thanks and have a great day".  The noise and the eating resumes. Wow, what a unique and amazing breakfast, and to think that all of this has to be brought up here to the mountain! 


About 9:25 a.m., we all head out back down the mountain. There is something interesting this time going DOWN the mountain. Everyone is screaming in speed down the mountain. There are very few stops for rest this time. It's only gravity pushing you and the calves of your legs reminding you of muscles you have not used in a long time. Coming down, we scream in at 12:30 a.m. Some of the crew even makes it in at 12 noon. What a contrast! I stop some with my buddy Brett and we admire some of the scenery. We both snap pictures and discuss the trip. My wife is just ahead of me and stops some, but is mainly headed for that car and to get those boots off! Steve, Dewanna, and Don, must have zoomed  down the mountain. They beat everyone. Pat and Jennie stay back with us as well and we all have conversations down the mountain that really top a trip off and make it wonderful as well. It's the fellowship and the nature that ties anything amazing like this together. As we get to the car, in a rather tired and ill tone, my wife says she needs to get the car open so she can get these boots off-NOW! She made it fine as did everyone else. 5.3 miles show up on my GPS since I reset it to zero at the cabin. We pause for a group picture (taken by a total stranger) at the trail head parking, shake hands, and vow we will be back to this amazing place. Brett doesn't bat an eye. Even with this being his 5th trip, he is ready to book next year, immediately!


I must close with some humor for everyone. With my wife and I (both in our early 50's) on our drive back home, we sat in the car for about 5 hours on the drive home before we decide to get out and eat supper. As we get out, it is all we can do to move. I consider myself in shape at this stuff, but for some reason, 10 miles of trail hit me! We both poked across the restaurant parking lot at .4 miles per hour. Traffic in the drive though had to wait what seemed like minutes until we crossed in front of them and finally got out of the way at a tortoise pace.  Man, I have not been this "stiff" ever! After 5 minutes of walking around, I returned somewhat to normal. My wife still recalls that and laughs at how we looked. We looked and felt like grandma and grandpa. 
If you ever have the opportunity to do this amazing journey, please take the time now to do something similar while you still have your health. If you cannot make this journey, then it is my wish that you enjoyed going along with us on this trip. I hope that the writings I have here have portrayed the images I witnessed with this incredible beauty.  It's all out there folks. The beauty of nature and God's creations are all for the taking. All you have to do is push your body sometimes to get to these places and open your eyes. I guarantee you it will cleanse your mind and body from this crazy world we live and deal with on a daily basis. It puts the meaning of life back in check with your mind by clearing the "stuff" out we deal with daily. 
See you on the next adventure! Thanks for going with us!

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Big Tree-Sipsey Wilderness Area-Bankhead National Forest-Preferred Hiking Route

Main waterfall that is the backdrop of the Big Tree.
Of all the E-mails and facebook requests I get concerning this Blog site, the majority seem to all ask the same question "What is the best route to get to the Big Tree?". I decided it was time to help some folks out with this blog. I cannot answer all the E-mails and facebook requests, but maybe I can answer most of them here with this short article.

Second waterfall to the left of the Big Tree.
First, of ALL the reports of people getting lost in the Sipsey Wilderness, most all of them center around people either going or coming from the Big Tree. The majority of people know and respect the woods, but even the most skilled woodsmen have been turned around getting to this giant icon for the south. Being respectful of mother nature and her elements are the key to taking off on this trip. A pair of sneakers and a bag of M&M's will probably get you there and back, but if anything goes wrong, you might just find yourself spending the night on the ground, or hovering by a fire wishing you had told someone where you were going while search parties are planted thoughout Bankhead looking for you.
A view of the top of the Big Tree. Notice the large trunk compared to others trees around.

Big Tree visitors pause and relax after a long hike to get there.
If you decide to take a hike to the Big Tree whether to camp or to just take a day hike, PLAN AHEAD! Pick a FULL day to go do this. Don't hit the woods at 2:15 p.m. and expect to dash in and come out. Don't take small children that will tire out fast, otherwise, plan on sore shoulders and a very ill child by the end of the day. There is NO RELIABLE CELL PHONE coverage in the Sispey Wilderness Area. If you are an amateur radio operator, there is a repeater in the forest you can reach. It is the 146.960 Moulton repeater. There is also the 442.425 repeater but does not cover the wilderness area as good. Both are sponsored by the Bankhead Amateur Radio Club. They are open for all amateur radio operators to use. KNOW the area or get familiar with the area to some extent. I am a member of some clubs that hike and kayak, and I am totally amazed that some people have NO ideal of where they are, how to get out, or even where to start. They simply just "go with the crowd". Most of the time, that is fine. At one point in your life, it won't work, and YOU have to take care of yourself. On this trip, take lots of water, some food, a coat, jacket, and/or rain jacket, and a good pair of boots, not tennis shoes. Be prepared to get sweaty, dirty, and use every muscle in your body. This is a moderate to extreme hike for most people, so if you only hike in the city parks or on flat ground, you are in for a surprise! The reward however if you go and make it (and you will), will give you the honorable title of working for a goal and saying "I've been there!".

Nothing pleases me more than taking people to go see the Big Tree. Many groan, complain, and fuss the entire way at me and everyone else. Within one month after the trip, they are so glad they went, and will proclaim "it was worth every mile". I lost count at 14 times going there, so this place is old hat to me. Do I carry a GPS and map with me after this many times? YOU BETCHA, and I ALWAYS WILL!

There are about 4 ways to get to the Big Tree, but to cut down confusion, I am going to cover 3 of the most popular routes. The third, is my preferred and the shortest. The MAIN route that most folks take is by sticking to the trail. They either park at Cranal
A vertical panoramic view taken in March 2016. This puts the tree in perspective.
Road and Take Trail 201 or 202 and make their way down to 204 and camp along the way. Locals call this the "city slicker route" with all due respect. This is the route that would seem the most "logical" to follow given you don't know the area and you follow the U.S. Forest trail system. This is the killer hike route and most folks that do this, do it to camp. A few wandering soles take this route for a day hike, and come back calling it "the day hike from hades". Another route is to park at Thompson Creek Trail head, and follow Forest Service Trail along Thompson Creek taking FS206 and hit 209, and it will take you to the Big Tree. This appears to be the most popular route. This carries you through the Kings Cove area and a popular landmark called Ship Rock. Many camp here because it is basically a hugh rock that looks like the bow of a ship. There is also the Eye of the Needle in this area. It is a hole in the rocks near Ship Rock that allow you to cut through the cliff area and shorten your long route around Ship Rock down by Thompson Creek. On this popular route, you will meet your friends, neighbors, your brother, your cousin, your cousin's mother, etc. I am just kidding, but you get it now. This is the major highway route that many take to the Big Tree and camp along the way. Another blog is written about this route, so read it if you are interested in this "major highway route" that most folks take. It is 5.5 miles one way and is relatively flat. If you like this route, then use it. If you w
ant shortest time and least distance, then read on further!

For this blog, we will focus on my favorite route introduced to me back in 2002. It is off any "official" U. S. Forest Service Trail, and cuts time and distance in exactly half. It is a mere 2 miles in or a 1.5-2 hour walk in, and the once barely visible footpath, is a "pig trail" of high foot traffic that many are taking now. The first thing to do is get you a Sipsey Wilderness Map available at most any local store around the forest. Read this blog and then study the map. I have uploaded some pictures of my GPS tracks on here but they may not show up good enough for many. Look on your map and find Thompson Creek Trailhead. FS 206 and FS 208 start here. It is at the end of the Northwest Road. Park your vehicle here and tell your friends at home this is where you are parking.  At this point, since you have taken the time to read my blog, I want to let you in on a little secret on the area that very few know about. If you are a history fan, take note. If you just want to move on to the route, then skip down to the next paragraph.When you park at Thompson Creek Trail head, take just a few minutes to warm up by visiting a very old cemetery that few know about.  Leave your day pack and just take your camera and yourself. Now for some history. During the 1800's, this area was teaming with people living in the mountains. In fact, there was a house located up on the hill overlooking where you are parked on the road just before the bridge at Thompson Creek Trail Head. When you park your car, most people pull off on the right side of the road before the bridge at Thompson Creek Trail head. To the right of where you park on the road, up about 100 yards on the side of the hill overlooking the parking, is an old cemetery with 3 graves marked by white PVC pipe. There are no tombstones, only rocks marking the sunken in graves. This was the home of the Davenports that lived here during the late 1800's. The story goes that the father was killed by a falling tree, and a daughter committed suicide. It is unknown about the other grave. If you hike this steep hill up by your car to the flat spot, it is really a beautiful view of Thompson Creek in the winter time. You will notice where the home used to sit, and an old road bed that came up the hill from the Northwest road that you came in on to this spot, almost to the top of the hill. This entire area was known as "King Cove". When some wealthy people from Colbert County Alabama purchased large plots of land out there back during those times, the locals nick named the area "King Cove", for being wealthy, it must be owned by Kings. The motorway that later was carved through the forest was bearing the name King Cove Motorway for many years.  That name still appears on maps to this day.
Take your camera and snap a few pictures of this neat spot on the hill. If it could talk, it would certainly tell you some interesting stories. After you are finished looking around, make your way back down to your car, gather your pack and belongings, and lets hit the trail.

To Begin Your Journey:
Take FS Trail 206 at the Thompson Creek Trail head. Follow on this trail with Thompson Creek on your right side. Soon you come to a stream crossing that feeds into Thompson Creek. This stream is in White Oak Hollow. Cross the stream, pick the trail back up for about 200 feet, and the trail continues on beside Thompson Creek and has a sign pointing to the right telling you that 206 is to the right. This is where you "part your ways" with the FS trails. You will notice a Y in the road at this point. You will bear to your left and start going up White Oak Hollow. You are leaving the U.S. Forest Service Trail 206, but no worries. Your hiker friends have beat this trail to a pulp so you can easily see the trail. Follow the trail going up into White Oak Hollow. It follows beside this tributary stream and to the right of it. Soon, you will see that the trail is starting to go up the hill and to the right side of White Oak Hollow. You will see that it starts going straight up and is heading to the southeast of White Oak Hollow. It is here on this incline, that your stamina will be tested! The incline gets steeper and steeper as you are proceeding up and out of White Oak Hollow to the southeast. You can stop along the way (and you will out of breath), and notice the pretty rock out croppings to your right. A stream you start joining and winding back and forth across leads you and directs in in the right direction as you are making your way out of White Oak Hollow. When you get to the top of the hill and look back down on White Oak, you will notice you are standing on an old logging road at the top of the canyon. It leads you to some awesome hideout camps, but sorry, not to be talked about in this blog! After you sit down and take a short break with water, you then head on southeast and cross the logging road. You are headed back down into another canyon. Follow closely the trail and stay on it. If you are not familiar with the area, it is from here on that people get their "doubts", but have no fear, a solid trail is in front of you if you pay attention. Lets head on....
The trail that goes down into the canyon used to be nice and straight. With hurricanes in the past pushing trees down, it has turned this part of the trip into a zig-zag cross country course. As of this writing (August of 2011) it is still in this shape. It is kind of aggravating having to zig-zag back and forth but will change with time as the downed trees start to rot away. When you descend down, you will go from open forest land and slowly start getting into my most favorite part of the Bankhead National Forest, the hemlocks! The trail will start to take you down into a steep part of the canyon, and this is where it can get dangerous, depending on your skill and hiking level. The is the only area where I preach a sermon to those with me to take your time and be careful. The trail takes you down into a small waterfall and very slippery part. You have to negotiate down into the stream bed area and then follow the rocks of the stream bed for about 100 feet. Take your time here! People have left behind ropes to help you get down, and they may or may not be there. When you walk on the rocks, be very careful. I know a lady that went with us on one hike and slipped and fell on her bottom here. She felt pains from it for a year. After you have successfully negotiated this area, you are home free now as far as difficulty levels. This area when you come back up will go much faster than coming down. It is harder to come down a slick slope and rocks than it is to climb up one. After you reach the bottom of the canyon, take the time to walk slowly and admire the tall and beautiful bluff walls of the canyon to your left. The stream you came down will be on your right. This area is a good place to just stop and absorb some of the hemlocks and cliffs. As you walk on down the trail, you will come to a stream you will have to cross. It feeds into the stream to your right and they merge together here. This is WEST Bee Branch and this is the area where many folks get turned around and shortly after become lost . Cross this stream and DO NOT TURN LEFT. Many people do this. You will want to cross the stream and continue on downstream with the stream remaining on your right. If you were to turn left and march up West Bee Branch, you are going the wrong way! They do it so much that there is a trail beat down going on the right side of West Bee Branch! Wrong way folks! Many people do this and get into really rough country with the dense foliage, turn around and get confused. Most simply give up and return back to the truck or car. Where they went wrong is turning left at the first stream (West Bee Branch) and they should be going on down further to turn left on East Bee Branch. Continuing on our hike, as you walk the heavily beaten trail with Bee Branch on your right, you will come down to a flat area on the other side of the creek. Before you get to this flat area though, you will notice lots of trees down through this area as well. A "microburst" from a storm sent many trees down beside the stream and across the trail. It too, zig-zags back and forth. There is going to be a small little 8 foot wide hole in the middle of the trail (about 4 foot deep) you will have to climb down in and back up along this trail. Again, take your time throgh this. As you come down to the flat area off to your right on the other side of Bee Branch, this is going to be the intersection of East Bee Branch and Bee Branch. The trail runs right into East Bee Branch and Bee Branch will be on your right. After you cross East Bee Branch, turn left NOW, and walk UP East Bee Branch. The trail is on the right side of East Bee Branch and makes it's way up the canyon, slowly gaining elevation up above East Bee Branch. The trail is about a half of a mile long and leads you right to the Big Tree. Looking back on where we have come from: The most important thing I can stress here is when you come down from the slick rocks and canyon with ropes I talked about, do not take the first stream you cross to the left, but cross it and go on down to the second stream and THEN turn left heading up into the canyon. Do this and you will not get lost as so many do.

While you are at the Big Tree, but sure and check out the two massive waterfalls that are nearby that add "icing to the cake" rewarding you for your long walk. Take the time to eat your lunch there, taking in the scenery and the sounds of the waterfalls. Notice the orange iron ore seeping out from the canyon walls, an element used in making steel by the old timers of long ago. Also notice a rather large "ball like" hole in the side of the canyon beneath the largest waterfall. Strange? If you are adventurous, work your way up the canyon to the top where you can look down at the Big Tree and the canyon. This is better to do in the wintertime where you can see further.

Plan your trip, take water, plan on leaving Thompson Creek Trailhead about 9-10 a.m. to start your journey, and plan on getting out about 4-5 p.m. This is for day hikers. If you are overnight backpacking, well, I could write 6 blogs on things to do and more places to go on that, so I will save that for another day. I hope you enjoy your trip should you decide to go. If it helps you any, I have taken some elderly men in their 70's on this hike. They were in good shape and they all made it fine. Just prepare yourself for sore muscles the next day. This shorter route is far more strenuous than the relatively flat 5.5 mile route, but will take half the time! I hope this blog has been helpful to you. If so, set a date on the calendar and get going! I prefer winter months to do this myself. There is far more to see with the leaves gone and no ticks, chiggers, snakes, and mosquitos. Everyone has their own special times they want to go so any time will do. I hope you get to see this "giant icon" that attracts everyone in the South. If you do, then you can say "I have been there!" the next time someone mentions "The Big Tree".

On the maps above: The first map shows Thompson Creek parking. You can see "tracks" or also called "snails trail" left by previous trips with my GPS. It basically marks wherever you walk. You can see on the top map the area where instead of crossing the first stream and turning right on FS Trail 206, you will turn to the left and proceed up White Oak Hollow for a short piece. The second map shows where when you descend down into the canyon, you will cross West Bee Branch, go on down to the next stream (East Bee Branch), and then head up to the Big Tree. Almost everyone else that does not take this short route will be joining you on the trail going up East Bee Branch.

Politically Correct Statement: The writer of this blog assumes no responsibility for the safety of persons reading this blog and taking this hike. It is the hikers responsibility to know the area and to assume their own responsibility for the correct clothing, gear, weather, emergency plans, and skills needed to perform this hike. This article is for informational purposes only.

UPDATE-8/30/2011-Since I have posted this and ran it on facebook, one of my good hiking friends who went there in June has informed me that due to recent storms, tornadoes, and high wind events, Thompson Creek Trail and Northwest Road have been closed. In addition, the wonderful route that I have described above has been "decimated" as well with trees down. Since this is not an official U.S. Forest Trail as I explained above, don't look for this route to be cleared, ever. I will try and post more information as I get it from hiking friends.
This is a little known waterfall and bluff shelter you hear on your right as you are descending down into the hemlocks and the worst part of the journey, the canyon stream crossing. .
First Section going down-Muddy and steep. Take it slow. Easier coming back out of this. See text below.
Second Section-Steep with rocks to step work down and cross a small stream. Beautiful canyon once you get through this.
Here is your reward for coming down the steep bank. Take a minute and absorb the beauty.

 The above pictures show the most treacherous area of the entire short route journey to the Big Tree. At your halfway point after you come out of White Oak Hollow and down into the other side, you have to go down this steep muddy bank and cross a stream. Be careful through here. Coming back from the Big Tree is not as bad since you are climbing up. Going down, it's easy to slip and fall. The path going to the big tree in this picture would be from right to left. The stream you cross is on the left side.

UPDATE! 2/2/2013-Thompson Creek Trail has been totally cleaned up by the U.S. Forest Service. A tornado that came through the area in 2011 knocked down trees around Ship Rock, leaving it exposed more and definitely shines as a shining monument approaching it on the trail. On the short cut route to the Big Tree which is what this blog is about, it is rough but passable. It is still your best route to go see the Big Tree if you want the fastest route.  I personally walked the short route over half way on this day and it is indeed still open. There are lots of trees down from hurricanes that passed up from the Gulf Coast, and some trees down from the 2011 tornado. As you come down into the canyon shown here, trees leaning to your right on the ground were from the past hurricanes. Trees leaning from right to left (SW to NE) were from the F1 Tornado that come through Ship Rock and crossed over this way. As a result of all this mess, there are lots and lots of switchbacks, but their is a human traffic trail still wore out. You can get through all of this, you just might have to wind around downed trees. The wore out trail is easy to follow so this continues to be a faster way to get to the Big Tree.
2/2/2013. This is what it looks like on the other side of White Oak Hollow and start coming down. I turned around and snapped this picture. The well worn foot path  is there but with many switchbacks to go around the trees. A Hurricane went through here in the mid 2000's and a tornado came through in 2011. I saw this place 8 years ago, it was beautiful with a green grass forest floor. You simply walked down the hollow and followed the stream. 
UPDATE-February 2016-Several people have E-mailed me with some helpful tips after reading this blog and going the short route. First, we never said this was the easiest route! It is the shortest route meaning less miles, faster time to arrive there.  If you want long straight trails for the most part that is about 2-3 times further in distance, than the long route is better for you using U.S. Forest Service trails. If you want the shortest route, shortest time in and out, then the short cut is the ticket. Also, a couple of my readers have topped White Oak hollow and missed the trail going back down into the next hollow that takes you by West Beech Branch and the ropes I talked about people using to go down the steep bank. Since there are about 4 different trails where people have made or 4 different paths to the top of White Oak Hollow during the last 100 feet before you top White Oak, make sure you go UP AND OVER  into the next hollow once you reach the old logging road on top of White Oak and you will pick up the trail again. Some have walked too far to the right or too far to the left on top of White Oak Hollow on the old road and missed the trail. REMEMBER THAT WHEN YOU TOP WHITE OAK HOLLOW ON THE OLD LOGGING ROAD, YOU WILL WANT TO GO ON OVER AND DOWN ON THE OTHER SIDE INTO THE NEXT HOLLOW. DO NOT TAKE THE ROAD TO THE RIGHT OR LEFT ON TOP OF WHITE OAK TOO FAR. JUST CONCENTRATE ON GOING OVER INTO THE NEXT HOLLOW AND YOU WILL PICK UP THE WORE OUT TRAIL. Since several tails have been cut to the top of White Oak hollow during the last 100 feet before the top, it is confusing to  people which way to go once they get to the top. Happy Hiking and be safe! Also remember that THIS WAY IS NOT AN OFFICIAL U.S. FOREST TRAIL SO IT HAS NO TRAIL NUMBER! The U.S. Forest Service does not endorse or even recognize this route to the Big Tree.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Alaska-The Great Land-By RV

Well, as promised. The days planned for some 5 months have come and gone, and only the memories remain. Hopefully, they will be preserved in this blog and shared with you to excite your senses to travel to this amazing place called Alaska. First, this will be a different blog then what you are used to reading from me in the past. I typically have always gone all out in camping or adventure, meaning, I go in the most primitive conditions and accept them. Most of you that read my blogs have gathered this. On this trip, I had to change that. I am carrying my family on this trip that does not except too kindly to primitive conditions as much as I do. Let me start by saying this. If you read this article, I hope you start now to go to Alaska. I encourage you to get a map down of Alaska and look at it as you read this blog. It will help you better appreciate this amazing area.

I have been blessed to be able to go to Alaska 14 times since 1986. Since that time on every trip, I have earned "air miles" with each and every trip that I flew on a plane. Those air miles got "cashed in" recently to bring my family to this place that has melted a special place in my heart. Since my eyes first set on Alaska in 1986, I fell in love with the state. I have talked to others that have been or go, and they all say the same. It gets in your blood. You can't get rid of it. There is a part of it that goes back home with you every trip. That's the only way I can describe it. I consider and will consider it my second home until the day I die. It is the only place where I feel at home there. I have traveled to Germany and all over the United States, including Colorado, that is many ways a mini Alaska, and nowhere does anything compare!

This blog will focus on places, things to do, and sites to see in Alaska, and not so much on kayaking, camping, or hiking as in previous blogs. It is still adventure, just in a different form. When I cashed in the free tickets to take the family to this place, I had no ideal what I would do and where I would take my daughter and wife. After discussions with my daughter, she said "why don't you just rent an RV and let's take off!" I thought, what a fantastic ideal! About every other vehicle on the road in the summertime up there is an RV, so why not! As you read this blog, we will focus on locations, where to go, what to see, and events that happened to us. I hope you will enjoy following along with us. Let's go!

Thursday morning-July 7th: We drive into the airport, and embark on a 12-17 hour ordeal JUST to get to this amazing place. There is no easy way to get to Alaska, and 97% of most all flights go to Anchorage, and depending on what airline, you will fly from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Salt Lake, or Seattle, Washington. Those are the main hubs that feed Alaska. For us flying from northern Alabama, it is always a 12-17 hour ordeal. You either sit in airports or you sit on a place the entire time. It is very taxing on your body. Going is easier, because you are psyched and ready for the trip. Coming back, your brain is saying, "Get me off this friggin plane, I am sick of flying!". On this trip, our route was Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and then Anchorage. We arrive around 6:00 p.m. Alaska time that afternoon. If you go by our Alabama time, it's 9 p.m., so a 12 hour ordeal. This is a good trip with only 12 hours. Coming home will prove to be a different story as you will see. As we arrive, we gather up all 796 pounds of clothes the family has packed into a suitcase and my North Face duffel (just kidding on the weight). We carried towels, a few bowels and pots for the RV in my The North Face duffel bag. Of course Delta Airlines loves this. They already charge you $25.00 for each one bag checked in per person, and with another at $30.00, they were more than happy to accommodate us and allow us to bring clothes on the flight for an extra $101.00. This could be soap box time, but I will move on.

Arriving at the airport in Anchorage, I call the hotel shuttle to come pick us up. It helps that I have been in this town many, many, times, and so I felt like the "guide" on this trip as well as the family member. We are greeted with a cool fall like breeze and a nice 61 degrees as we walk outside to wait on the shuttle. At 6pm in the afternoon, it looks like 3 pm back home. Most lower 48 folks don't know that because of the tilt of the earth for summer, this tilt gives Alaska at times, a full 24 hours of daylight! In June/July, it never gets dark! We will talk more about that later on. As we are picked up by a hotel shuttle, we head to Microtel just outside the airport. Why Microtel you ask and not Hampton Inn? Because the Hampton Inn and the Fairfield Marriott in the winter time are a modest $100.00 per night. In the summertime, that rate soars to $225.00 per night. Even the Microtel sticks you, but not nearly as bad-about $150.00 per night with taxes. We get to the hotel, order Sicily's pizza to be delivered to us, and crash for the night. But wait, we can't go to sleep, it's still light outside! This became a big issue as the trip goes on. I will explain as you go along with us.

Friday-July 8th: Time to get up and get going! We go down to the lobby and enjoy that mouth watering fine cuisine that only Microtel can offer for breakfast.... a cold bagel, cereal, or some fruit. It really got me excited for the day after I ate this (I am kidding of course). At 9 a.m., I call a taxi to come and pick me up. The destination is over to the RV place. When I arrive there, a 7 minute $25.00 ride, I am greeted with a very nice looking 24 foot RV with my name on a sign hanging on the mirror on the front- "FREE 7/8/2011". Cool, reservations do pay off sometimes! After an outside inspection of the RV with the people and a training course on how to use everything in the RV, we are set to go! My daughter had suggested I watch the Robin Williams movie on vacationing in an RV to get some tips, but I decided to just get it from the RV rental place. All right, 24 foot RV in my steering wheel and headed down the streets of Anchorage, Alaska. Freedom in Alaska begins today! Having driven before many times in Anchorage, I easily head back over to the hotel to show off our ride. Anchorage is a bear to drive in. It reminds me of driving in any large city. Everyone has the same attitude while they are driving- "I am on my way going to this place and YOU are in my way". I pull into the Microtel where the family is waiting. First words from daughter.....Cool! We load our 3 large suitcases and duffel bag in the RV. Next stop, your friendly local Fred Meyer store for groceries and supplies. We decide to visit Fred Meyer instead of the local China Mart (Wal-mart) that camps out at every city in the U.S. We shop and gather supplies and spend some time in Anchorage. I take them to Moose's Tooth Pizza and have lunch. This is the most incredible pizza I have ever had. The locals swarm all over this place, and it is always packed out. Some of the best pizza you will ever eat. If you go to Anchorage, Alaska, go by Moose's Tooth Pizza. My wife and daughter agree!

On this trip, I have planned a route both north and south of Anchorage, Alaska in the RV. First, we will travel north and go up near Palmer, to a small little "hole in the wall" RV park-Mountain View RV park outside of Palmer. The RV park requires traveling up the Glenn Highway (Highway 1), turn right onto the Old Glenn Highway and follow it several miles. As we pull into the lot, my family was somewhat shocked to see this site. I am used to it being up there so much but folks tend to forget that Alaska has not been "corporationized" as much. People from the lower 48 and come up expecting to see $10,000 signs out by the road, glitzy lights, and all the advertising we are used to in the lower 48 or in even in Anchorage. In the real world of Alaska, it has not been "corporationized" yet, and so many of the services are owned and operated by folks like you and me. People who have lived there all their life. A business might be part of their home, next to their home, or across the road from home. Such was the case here. The upstairs of the RV park office was their home. As I pull in and go into the office, there is nobody around. Dead quite. A sign over by the counter says "ring bell for service", and so I do. After some noise up above me upstairs, a young lady comes down the stairs into the office and says "Hello, can I help you?". She takes care of my site and says just pick one. I look and there are tons of sites left and few people here. I myself am beginning to wonder if I picked the right RV park. I mean this is peak tourist season. As we set up the RV for the first time, it's about 7 p.m. and not a sole in site. I see RV's around, but there are no sounds! The place is absolutely dead quite. Another interesting point my daughter pointed out, was that there were no bird sounds even. For whatever reason, this place is dead quite, I mean dead quite. The first night in the RV was uneventful, other than the fact this was wife and daughter's time to witness constant light. This time of year, with the earth's axis at a tilt to bring up our summer, it messes with the state of Alaska. Because of the axis tilt of the earth, in June through August, there are extremely long days of light. At certain times, there is no darkness, only a dusky dark, meaning the sky stays light, and there is a dusky dark in the neighborhoods. In dense foliage, it might be enough to call dark. My wife was intrigued by this the entire trip. Not having darkness does different things to different people. For some, they just roll the blinds down and go to bed. For others, there is this sort of mental drive that says "there is light outside, I need to be doing something, it's not time for bed!".

The next morning, we packed up early after breakfast. Time to hit the road! Destination, A reindeer farm that my daughter had picked out. I didn't know it fully , but turns out she had been watching Sarah Palin's Alaska, a Discovery Channel special that aired some time back. In this special, they visited a reindeer farm. OK, let's try it out. I did not expect much nor am I a hugh fan of these type places, but hey, this is a family vacation. Pulling in, we were arriving a few minutes early before they opened at 10 a.m. As we got out, paid our entrance fee into this reindeer farm, which by all accounts look like a farm anywhere in the U.S. The house the owners live in is next door. If it were not for a sign, you would feel like you just drove up to someone's house and the farm next to their house! This is typical Alaska. The RV park you may remember, was nothing more than someones house with an RV park in the back yard! As we started talking to the owners, we learned to appreciate reindeer. Reindeer is a term for domesticated caribou. They owned a large number of them! They also had bison, elk, musk ox, and two moose that were raised from the early life. As we talked to the people running the place, it became more and more fascinating. Coming from the lower 48 states, you quickly learn things new. As these caribou or reindeer walk around, there is a noticeable "clicking" or "popping sound" similar to what it sounds like when someone pops their knuckles. Turns out, this is a special tendon that allows them to walk and spread their feet wider for walking over snow. It is a rare opportunity to stand up close with elk, moose, and other animals they have at the farm. The moose was the most captivating to our family. Having traveled many times to Alaska, these creatures amaze me in the fact that it can be minus 30 degrees outside, and they are casually walking along the tundra eating limbs off of scrub brush. You have to wonder, how in the heck does something this tall, this big, live out in extreme temperatures eating only sticks! After about 2 hours of relaxing time talking to these wonderful folks at the farm, we say goodbye and head out of the Palmer area and go north.

Next Stop-Hatcher Pass and an old historic mine-Independence Mine, designated as a museum by the State of Alaska. My good friend Joe, who lives in Anchorage, suggested I go there. It is located up north of Palmer, Alaska. I highly recommend you put this place on your "to do" lists in life. The fact that we made it to this place was luck. We were supposed to link up with Joe's family and stay in a very remote cabin that his dad owns from Friday until Monday. Timing is everything, and as it turned out, Joe left his job and had started a new job. Starting a new job yields no extra days to take off, and so our chance to stay in the cabin was lost. We decided to make the best of these 4 days that we lost, and Hatcher Pass was on the list to do for Saturday. As we wind our way up the road above Palmer, Alaska, we can tell we are starting to get into the high country. Alaska can be summed up in one word-BIG! Words, pictures, and even vivid descriptions cannot yield to you the immensity of this place. Mountains that "look" like just down the road, might easily be 20-30 miles away! As we slowly gain elevation starting to ease up into the mountains, it is here that the family starts to really absorb true Alaska! Up until this point, it was boring details of groceries, gas, staying in an RV, and the hassles of getting it from point A to point B. As we come around a curve, we come upon a pull over and cars parked by a creek. I decide to pull over for a minute and let's absorb some of this beauty we have been seeing as we go up in elevation. I am glad we did. The view from the bridge we crossed in such a hurry, looking up the creek back towards the mountains, was absolutely stunning! Picture time, picture time. I snap off tons of pictures. The view I see is the view you see on this blog. The very first picture. You know what is coming next and you are right in your own thinking. Pictures do no do justice to the real thing. Seeing it's vibrant colors only the eye can stimulate you with, smelling the clear stream and fresh clean air, and feeling the cool 58 degree low humidity air are all missing! OK, we need to move on. You get the point. I wish you were here to see it! Moving on up the winding road and occasional switchbacks, we are starting to gain considerable altitude and the tree line is leaving us. Next is just scrub brush. Pulling off the road for a moment to absorb more of this, we see an incredible change of colors with various gradients going up the mountains from the vegetation. As the mountain goes on up, it turns to tundra, and then to just pure gray rock. The top of mountains this tall support little to no vegetation. The only thing that visits them is bears and mountain goats. A short time longer down the road and we arrive and an amazing place in Hatcher's Pass. it is called Independence Mine. A view of the entire mine museum and Hatcher Pass is shown on this blog. The story behind Independence Mine is simple. The gold rush spurred the site of this mine and a 24/7 operation in the 20's, 30's, and until the 40's. With the onset of World War II, the war board declared the site a recreational site and not an asset to the war, and so it was ordered to be shut down. Shut down it was and it never returned. In later years, the state of Alaska Parks took it over as a museum. It stands today, many of the rooms untouched from the 1950's. Really an amazing place. We quickly found out we could easily spend 2-3 days at this place. There is so much to see, so much to do, and so much beauty to absorb. It was tough leaving! With lunch in the RV on the way up to Hatcher Pass, it is late in the afternoon now, and we decide to head on out to stay in Wasilla Saturday night.
As we leave Hatcher Pass, Hatcher Pass leaves something with us. You cannot describe it, but we talked about it the entire trip while we were up there and after we returned home. Alaska does this to you. It leaves you with a craving for more. You want to come back and see it again, and again. It is hard to describe, and if you have never been there, you will think I am on dope. I can assure you I am not. It is just that Alaska grabs you like no other place. As we depart, we are saddened knowing we may not get to this special place for a while. Notice I said a while, because we will be back! Saturday afternoon finds us bypassing Palmer somewhat and heading on over to Wasilla. There is simply no time.

Arriving in Wasilla, we decide to check this town out! I have been here once or twice since 2007, but I notice immediately that it has grown! The promotion of Sarah Palin and the media's constant exploitation of this lady has apparently doing well with the town. This is her home town. She was mayor here for a short time and continues to live here. It had grown since I saw it in 2007. We arrive at our destination-Big Bear RV Park. This allows us time to upload the pictures to facebook, sent E-mails, and a chance to take in all that beauty we saw today. As 10:30 p.m. approaches, it looks like 5 p.m. on the eastern side of the U.S. The sun is about at the 3 o'clock position. My daughter and I shut the curtains on the RV and crash. My wife, still captivated by this constant light, stays up a while longer, looking out the RV as if something "magical" is about to happen with all of this light outside. It is hard to get used to. The fact that you could work an 8 hour day this time of year, and still have another 12 hours of light to do other activities, such as yard work or anything outdoors. Everybody up here uses daylight to the max this time of year. We heard children up playing at 11:30 at night! So strange to witness.

Sunday morning-July 1oth, 2011-We wake up in Big Bear RV Park in Wasilla, eat a small breakfast, and head out about mid-morning in the RV. We know how to use everything on this camper now, and it is working out great! This time, we are headed back south towards Anchorage. We had considered going on up north to Talkeetna on the Glenn Highway (Highway 3), gateway to Denali National Park as they all say. Talkeetna is unique in that you drives for miles and miles headed to Talkeetna with nothing but flat forest land on each side of you. By the time you get to Talkeetna, you are starting to see the mountains of Denali National Park. On a clear day, a spectacular view of Mount McKinley can be seen. This makes Talkeenta a good target to head far. The problem is, time and distance. My good friend Darrell in Fairbanks even ask me to go on to Denali and meet he and his wife for the weekend. With the distance and time involved, we humbly declined. It is just too far up to drive. I hate not seeing Darrell and showing my and daughter Denali, but there is only so much you can fit in time with Alaska. Alaska is BIG.
We take the Glenn Highway (Highway 1) Sunday morning headed south back to Anchorage. I forgot to mention this earlier, but a local friend in Alaska informs me that the mountain chain that you drive right next to going out to Knik Arm bay area, is the end of the Rocky Mountain chain! The Rocky Mountain chain that starts in the United States, proceeds up into Canada, then Alaska, and stops next to Knik Arm inlet. A useless, but interesting factoid! You read it here first! As we move down the road, I decide to try something. My wife and I turn on UStream and broadcast live to the world using my iPhone. What better place than the Glenn Highway, with its spectacular scenery. Our destination was Eagle River State Park about half-way between Anchorage and Palmer. With the remote cabin planned originally over the weekend, the family was making this up as we went along to fill in this time slot. I had been checking out parks, both federal and state, and this name came up. I noticed it had no hookups for an RV. That was fine though, since we had all we needed in the RV. We knew we really didn't even have to use the generator since it never got completely dark. Upon arrival, we were surprised at just how small it was. We were surprised and happy to find an open spot, so we took it! As we started to get settled with the RV, we decided to walk around the park. The was the best ideal we ever decided to do. We quickly found the ragging Eagle River running beside the campground. Water, raging with class 2, 3, and 4, rapids went right beside the camping area. The river and the scenery we fell in love with immediately. The only thing I forgot to mention was this. When we came into the campground, there were signs everywhere that read "HIGH Bear Alert Area! Bear are very active in this area and everyone please maintain all food storage practices! With that being said, that added a little a suspense to the stay! What type of bear we wondered? Brown Bear, Black Bear? As we soon found out, Black Bear only. We knew most of the time if we just had Black Bear, they can be bluffed or will not be as aggressive as a brown bear or grizzly. Walking up the creek and exploring on a trail, we found lots of flat rocky shores along the way. The interesting thing to point out here is that rivers are raging this time of year, partly because of glacier and snow melt runoff from the massive tall mountains. Also, because of such a strong current, the churning water is a dark to light gray color, and you cannot see anything in the water. The strong current keeps sediment stirred up similar to the way mud is stirred up during a flood in the lower 48. After about an hour or so there, my wife and I walk down to the Glenn Highway bridge where Eagle River flows underneath Highway 1 or the Glenn Highway. We sit down on a rock, listening to the roar of the river and the noise of traffic flowing above us. Within 10 minutes, a hugh bald Eagle flies down the creek, and parks on a tree right near us (see picture on this article). I ease out the camera and fire several pictures off. After 15 minutes, the Eagle flies on. I shot a couple of pictures. One is featured on this blog. The are is an amazing are to go to. It is a small campground, not a lot of people, and a great place to just "chill" and absorb the beauty. As the evening goes on, you want to just stay outside, since there is still so much light. At 9:30 p.m., we decide to head back to the camper. Another amazing place to see. Too much to see and too little time.

The next morning on a Monday the 11th, we reluctantly head out of the campground and move on down south on Highway 1 back towards Anchorage. This is the least pleasant time of our trip, Anchorage. The RV Park there is about the only one in town, it is large, right smack in the middle of town, and kind of has a "trailer park" atmosphere that I am not fond of. What I mean by that is, your camper is less than 10 feet away from the next one! If your windows are down as most are with the cool nights, your neighbor hears everything you say. My family was not happy with this situation, but knew that is was necessary. We had to wash clothes, empty the RV toilet tank, fill the water tank up with fresh water, and get ready for our next phase of the trip, south bound to Seward. Before we did that though, we were going to have to spend another full day in Anchorage, partly because our cabin fell through with my good friend Joe. The original plan was to spend Friday the 8th until Monday the 11th in a remote cabin several hundred miles from Anchorage. I had already reserved a spot for Monday night in the RV park when we planned the cabin stay months earlier, so we decided to just make the best of Anchorage all day Monday, and then head south. Monday morning, we went to the Anchorage
Zoo at the request of my daughter. Zoos can be zoos to me (yawn) but Anchorage did have a fairly nice zoo. A couple of the highlights were the polar bears, the grizzly bears, gray wolves, doll sheep, moose, and a coyote. The coyote entertained us. Every single time a trumpeter swain would cut loose with a "bugle" sound, the coyote would immediately respond with a yelp or howl. We got an amusement out of that. I actually recorded the sounds of it on my iPhone. Late that afternoon, another $160.o0 worth of groceries and supplies at Fred Mayer and we were ready to head out Monday morning. The rest of Anchorage is mainly a large busy city, with intense traffic, crime, and because of the harsh winters, generally a dirty appearance. We did manage to go by Kincaid Park, an extremely large park I read about all the time in the Anchorage newspapers that I subscribe to. There are constantly moose hanging out in this amazing park. The park has extremely nice trails that serve as bike trails in the summer, cross country skiing in the winter, and numerous other trails for various activities. This day that we went hoping to see moose, only yielded tons of cars and traffic from some sort of regional soccer tournament. Big disappointment but at least we said we saw Kincaid park.

Tuesday-July 12th. We eat breakfast at the Peanut Factory over on Old Seward Highway and set out for a place that I read about, that locals go to, but thousands of tourists that pass by it each year pass up. It is Potters Marsh. Potters Marsh is a refuge formed by the making of the Alaska Railroad track and the Seward Highway. It was sort of an accident that it came about. By the construction of these two things next to Cook Inlet, it made an incredible marsh that has attracted all types of wildlife. Within 10 minutes of arriving, we spotted an Eagle sitting in a tree, ducks and geese, as well as Sockeye salmon (reddish pink color) running in the stream through the marsh. The wind got up that day, became overcast with a light rain. We stayed about an hour there but vowed to come back. It is a neat place, and if you ever travel to Anchorage, make it a stop on your way south to Girdwood, Portage, or Seward. Next on the list, is Whittier, a small port town, but first, we have to take in a little site seeing along the way. The Seward Highway, is unquestionably the most scenic highway talked about in Alaska. This long stretch of road that follows Turnigan Arm of Cook Inlet, yields the ocean bay, massive mountains that stretch through the sky on some days, bold brilliant color variations on the mountainside this time of year, along with vehicles on the road that give the since of just how small you are in this world. As we travel on down the road, I pull off the road at Beluga Point, a popular pull off spot for tourists. Here you can take on the ocean bay breeze, hear the roar on the sides of the mountains of the hundreds of waterfalls coming off the mountains from snow and glacier water run off, as well as see the harsh rock outcroppings going out into the bay. My wife and daughter really enjoyed this place. We could have stayed a lot longer, but had to move on. We move on down the highway and pass the turnoff to Girdwood, a small town that hosts Aleska Ski Resort. You will hear more about this neat place later on in the trip. Coming on down the Seward Highway (still Highway 1), we turn left on Portage Glacier road, and head for the Begich Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Valley, Alaska. One neat thing to point out here. As you come down Highway 1, you will see buildings that appear to be sunk into the ground and very old. There is interesting history here. In 1964, this area suffered a massive earthquake. It tore what buildings were standing down, and the sea water flooded this town. It killed the trees in the low lands, and the remains of the buildings and the trees are still standing in many areas. Alaska, because of it's harsh winters, does not heal back very fast from disasters or damages sustained. So when you drive out into this area, you see dead trees still standing out of the 1960's and buildings somewhat preserved from that time period. Alaska does not have all the microorganisms to break stuff down as we do in the continental U.S., thus items are preserved better up there.
Stopping at the Portage Glacier Visitor Center or Begich Boggs Visitor Center (named after the mountain tops surrounding them), we go in and see exhibits on display and a interesting film on glaciers. The center, ran by the U.S. Forest Service, has some interesting history to talk about. Several years ago, the U.S. Forest Service built this multimillion dollar complex, and spared no expense. At that time, it was looking at the beautiful and massive Portage Glacier. The center was designed with a large window that is at the head of an auditorium. When curtains are pulled back and massive motion picture screen is raised up, it yielded a spectacular view of the glacier right in front of you. The normal routine right after it was built was to shuffle everyone in this large auditorium, show them a film on glaciers, pull the screen up and raise the curtains back and there was a massive Portage glacier in front of you to captivate you. Something bad happened over the years though. For whatever reason, global warming, climate changes, climate shifts, the glacier melted and moved back around the corner BEHIND the mountain OUT OF CLEAR VIEW. Now days, the view of the glacier is gone, and all you see is a glacier lake when the curtain is pulled back now! If you want to really see the glacier, you have to take a road over back closer to the glacier, and board a boat. We did later, and we will get to that later on.
Finishing up here, I take them to another path I have been several times, the Whittier Tunnel and the town of Whittier, Alaska. Whittier is another town of fascination to me. Look at Whittier on Google Earth now. It connects Passage Canal (The Gulf of Alaska) with Turnigan Arm (Cook Inlet) and you can see that this is a vital shipping or port town. In recent years, it is a popular stop for cruise ships. For years, people had to travel over Portage Pass, a relatively low area between two mountains that allowed passage over to Whittier. In World War II, it was decided a 2.5 mile railroad tunnel needed to be constructed through Maynard Mountain and a 1 mile tunnel before you get to that. To date, it is the longest railroad tunnel in North America. The neat part is that it is shared with Alaska Railroad, has only one lane, and so traffic is alternated in both directions at set times.
Pulling up to the tunnel, we pay the $12.00 round trip fee, move up and wait in line with about 4lanes of traffic. The lanes are numbered and they have traffic lights that tell you when that lane is clear to proceed. There is one major crawling text for everyone that reads "The next traffic through is 1:00 p.m." The tunnel is dark, wet, and long. My family was not too fond of this, but I wanted them to experience this. This will be my 3rd time to come down and go in this way. When you emerge from the tunnel, aside from the always stunning scenery around you of the mountains and glaciers, Whittier, is a big bubble pop. There is very little to the town, it is small, cramped, and dirty. It is a port town keep in mind, not so much a tourist town. They only have 200 full time residents! We spend about 2 hours here, and move on. My wife and daughter were not very impressed. I did not expect them to be. It is just one of those unique "been there and did that" places. I am sure there are lots of people that would like to visit "Dutch Harbor", a little "hole in the wall" port town made famous by the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch television program. It is mid-afternoon now, time to move back through the tunnel and head on down to Bear Creek just before Seward, another port town.
Around 7 p.m., we reach the address of Bear Creek RV Park. Now this one knocked my family to the floor. Being used to corporate lower 48 America, they expected a $15,000 sign out front, large billboards advertising the campground. WRONG! We just about literally pulled into the back yard of someone's house. The campground, as so many of campgrounds in Alaska, are ran by local Americans like you and I . It would be not much different then setting up an RV park in your back yard back at home in the lower 48. I pull in, and a kid, and I do mean kid (around 10-12 years old) checks me in. Even myself, having come to this area before, was taken back by this. The check in room doubled as a bar, an eating area, and a lounge area. The cash register he checked me in on doubled as the cash register for the bar. He picked up his radio microphone attached to his shirt and said "Joey, I need you to come around here and show some people where to park!" After about 2 minutes, another 10-12 year old boy came in and said "you are in lot 9. I will show you. Just follow me". So I followed him outside and he helped me back my RV into a slot. Now that was odd! Never have I had a 10-12 year old boy hand me back my credit card and I sign a receipt. Alaska is always full of surprises and this too, was added to the list.

Wednesday morning, July 13th-Time to head to Seward for our next adventure. Having traveled here several times with business trips, I decided to book a whale tour for a half day. In 2007, my nephew Eric and I booked a trip with some outfitters to kayak and camp among glaciers in the Kenai Fjords National Park. That was a trip I will never forget. On this day, we hope to see all kinds of wildlife. Before we have to meet at the dock and check in, we decide to have some unusual fun. There is a web camera located on the dock that overlooks the Seward Harbor. I have done this before with friends and co-workers. We called home some 3,000 miles away and spoke with some family members. They went to this web site and we gave them a wave on camera. Hey, you gotta do some crazy things every now and then. It was fun using technology again.

At 12:00 noon the boat departs out of Seward harbor. On this day, there was hardly a cloud in the sky! For Alaska, that is truly a unique day. There are very few days where you can see total blue sky. The Mountains in Alaska are so high and so big, they create their own climates at times. As a result, there is almost always clouds in the sky. It is rare to get several days with absolutely nothing. Departing out into Resurrection Bay is always an amazing deal. It's here that you see just how small you are, how small the Town of Seward, Alaska is, and just what an amazing and massive land Alaska truly is. It is hard to describe Alaska in print. It's hard to really grasp Alaska in pictures. Once you go to Alaska, a part of Alaska stays with you. This makes my 14th trip to this amazing place. I crave it while I am home in Alabama, I dream about the next trip coming, and I seize every second when I go. At work, whenever a possible trip comes up for Alaska, they know me. They know I am begging for this trip and they don't even have to ask me to go. Now, for the first time in my wonderful years of marriage, both my daughter and my wife now feel the same as I do. They don't want to go home!

As we run along the shores of Resurrection Bay, we are absolutely captivated by the size of the mountains along the way. We see Sea Lions out, Doll Sheep are pointed out to us on the cliffs above, some 200 feet above us, looking down from a jagged rock outcrop. I only wish that this blog spot allowed more room for pictures. I have tons of them to share, but no way to do it in this form, so far now, you have to visualize a lot of this along with me. As we make our way on out to the main channel of the ocean, we are stunned to see what we actually paid to come and see, whales! We look out and observe about 5 humpback whales playing. There is one that is breaching or clearing the water up into the air at times. Every time one of the whales breaches out of the water, the boat sounds like a machine gun with the cameras snapping away. It is an amazing site. I have spent a week off the coast of Main in 2004 video taping whales for the Navy, but it is always a neat time when you get to observe these magnificent and large mammals. OK, now for the humor side of things. Before we departed on the ship, my entire family, including myself, had outfitted ourselves with arm bands to cut down on the chance of sea sickness. I had a mild queasy stomach after we started watching the whales. Since we were more out on the open ocean, the waves were beginning to pitch the boat pretty good. Concentrating on the whales for 30 minutes seemed to have taken its toll on the folks on board. My wife and daughter started becoming sea sick, very fast. So did others on the boat. The captain seemed to have gotten the hint and started wrapping up the visit with the Humpback whales and we start moving on back into the protected bay. It was too late for my crew. That wild beaming smile I saw when we were departing, changed to a serious, I have been shot in the stomach look. For the next 2 hours of the cruise, it was a somber wife and daughter. Others on the boat took the same shape. As we passed by the stunning and massive Bear glacier in resurrection bay, it was only a blur in their heads by now. I shot a rather funny picture of the two of them on the boat. Not the same crew about 3 hours earlier. I too, Mr. Adventure guy that I want to be, always becomes weak when it comes to the sea. I fought this for a week in 2004 in Maine, and my stomach was queasy now. Their solution on the boat!-Ginseng candy. Guess what? It works! I ate several pieces of this disgusting tasting candy, and soon, I was totally normal. Write that down and put it in your purse or wallet. Ginseng candy will solve your queasy stomach problems for motion sickness. After 5 hours of absolutely stunning beauty in Resurrection Bay, we return back to port. a wonderful cruise (well at least part of it was for my family) and a great way to wrap up another day in the Great Land. As we leave the port and head 6 miles back up the road to our RV Park (located in someones back yard), I wanted to take them up to Exit Glacier up above Seward. If you ever go to Seward, make sure you take the drive up there. It is a chance to get up close and personal with a massive glacier. My family was so stressed from the sea sickness, and the fact that it was about 20 miles out of the way before we got back to the RV Park, we decided not to go.

Thursday-July 14th-Next on the schedule, head back up towards Portage. We wake up to another beautiful day with the snow capped mountains around us at Bear Creek. We head out going back up the Seward Highway from where we came a few days ago. We are headed to another famous tourist stop-The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This center rehabilitates animals that have been hit by cars, abandoned by their mothers, etc. They have a number of types of animals ranging from brown bear, black bear, elk, caribou, buffalo, and musk ox. We enjoyed this place. It has fenced in areas that allow you to get up close to these amazing animals. If you have never been 15 feet away from a massive grizzly bear, this place is for you. It allows you to see, sometimes a little closer than you want to see, these massive animals. We spent about 2 hours at this place. As we are looking at the animals, we notice a few buildings or barn looking structures that have collapsed over the years in several places around this facility. We also notice a number of trees, both white and black spruce trees that are dead. Finally, we read a sign that says it all. These buildings are what is left of what was Portage, Alaska. The great earthquake of 1964 in Alaska leveled every building in this small town. As I mentioned earlier as we passed this area going on down to Seward, the ocean from the bay area-Turnnigan Pike flooded the area with sea water and killed all the trees. What was fascinating to me was that the structures were still in tack and the trees still around dead from 1964! I suppose with the winters and few fungus and "critters" to feed on these wooden structures and trees, they are slow to deteriorate. How many places in the states can you stand and look at a run down house or dead tree that became that state in 1964. Most trees would be long gone and deteriorated. Portage, as we learned, was a thriving town at one time. The earthquake pretty much decimated the town and took several lives with it. It is no longer what it used to be, at all. Another story worth telling while there was this. As we got out of the camper and starting to approach an observation building where you could view the moose at the conservation center, a sharp, pungent, and gasping type smell overcame me. It was the most intense smell of body odor I had smelled in a while. It would almost make you gag if you focused on the smell. Having travelled out of the country, my first thought was, OK, some foreigners are up ahead of us and the wind is just right. As we approached the building, I saw people coming out of the observation post and I said to myself, yep, those are the culprits! Geeze I wished they would get a bath! As we approached closer, a small 10x 12 pen was at the entrance. In this pin was a massive porcupine. As soon as we approached it, the smell just about knocked me to the ground. OOOOOK! It was not those people who forgot the right guard that morning. That intense body odor smell was that of a porcupine!!!! I get it know! After reading and talking to some care takers at the place, a porcupine is a member of the skunk family, and so yes, they too have that perfume smell similar to "Peppy La Pue" from the Loony Tunes cartoons. It's just that they prefer the intense human body odor smell.

Leaving the Alaska Conservation Center, we head down the Portage Glacier Road for our campground for the night. It is Willa Walla, a U.S. Forest Service Campground. Elliott glacier up above this campground and adds to the already and ever present stunning beauty that you just bathe in every day in this place. As we pull into the campground, we see a camp host present at the entrance. This is pretty much a primitive type campground, but that's O.K. We have the RV loaded with fresh water, shower, etc. As we drive in and see the camp host, I ask him if he has any spots for the night. He says yes there are plenty, just go pick one. As we talk more, I see a grin come over his face. He says"Where are you from?" I said Alabama. He said grabs my wives arm and says "Montgomery Alabama for me. Its good to talk to a neighbor". In the course of our conversations, he says he is a retired UPS worker. He said he and his wife took a month and drove up to serve as a campground host. We both talked about and shared the beauty of this place. He too, has it in his blood. We talked about so many people "say" they are going to Alaska but never do it. We both agreed that indeed many of us have so much in our lives that there is no time. He said something I will never forget. "You know the ole saying-If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time!". He is so right. If you never PLAN to do something, you will NEVER get it done.

Once again as you have heard 10 thousand times of this reading, absolutely stunning views surround us. I mean you are in the middle of Portage Glacier Valley. Massive Mountains surround you. Elliott glacier, a valley type glacier looks down on the campground. The sun changes the light every so many minutes and changes the colors, the contrast, the texture, and on and on I could describe. YOU have BE THERE to appreciate anything I write down here. We find a great spot to park, and start exploring. "Hey, lets hike up to that glacier!" And so we take off down a trail. As we follow the trail, it goes more and more into dense foliage, I mean DENSE foliage! At times, the foliage gets so thick, you can only see a few feet in front of you. I had borrowed a can of Bear Pepper Spray from my buddy Joe who lives in Anchorage before making this second leg of the journey, and so I had it, tucked nicely and tightly away deep INSIDE my day pack I was carrying on my back. After a few minutes on our journey, I realized this was NOT the greatest ideal. OK, here we are: My wife is leading the way with no defense from bears or moose. My daughter is in the middle, and I am taking up the back in with my bear pepper spray, tucked tightly away so I cannot get to it quick. It is so thick we cannot see each other. As we walk and walk and walk, I suddenly realize something we southern folks forget about. That glacier "close by", might easily be another 3 hour walk just to get to. We have no food, no water, no GPS, no maps, and the trail is becoming more faint. In addition, moose pellets, or moose droppings, are everywhere! Fortunately, I don't see any bear scat or bear poop, but hey, you never know. A young lady at the Conservation Center told me that we should not have to worry about brown bears and that only black bears were the major factor at Willa Walla. As these thoughts are running in my head as we walk, it hits my wife as well without her saying a word. She too, realizes she is leading us with no defense from moose or bear, and the trail has gotten fairly weak by now. My daughter is starting to not like this situation and so she does what I taught her to do while hiking in Alaska. Talk LOUDLY as to alert any moose or bear that we are COMING! After about 20 minutes of walking in this dense mess, we all stop and compare notes. The resounding opinion was to head back! As we turn around and start heading back, I become captivated seeing so much moose poop everywhere. I am rolling the video camera and narrating this and my daughter is becoming by the second, more and more ill at me for coming on. My daughter is reminding me to COME ON!!!! It' funny how the "tone" in someones voice can depict exactly how they feel. My duaghter's tone of "COME ONNNNNN DAD!"means she is getting highly ticked, and highly much ready to get out of this place! After about 20 minutes, we arrive back out on the main trail. We laugh about it and move on. My daughter is not exactly happy of this situation. I reflect back on this. No harm is done. Just a simple trail, BUT, we are in Alaska. This is and can be the real deal. Not the movies or the TV shows. Preparation is the key to everything. This is not the Great Smokey Mountains National Park where 99.8% of everything you encounter, is more afraid of you than you are it. My good friends in Alaska, Joe, Darrell, Floyd, and Mike, have always stressed that prevention is the receipt to prevent disaster and surprises in Alaska. I should have had a gun or pepper spray attached and ready. Even Black Bear behavior in Alaska is different from the Smokeys.

As we return to camp, my crew is exhausted, and so they crash in the camper for a nap. Me, I cannot do that kind of stuff. I sit outside the camper just absorbing all of this beauty. As I sat there on the picnic table with the wind blowing. Suddenly, the smell of Peppy La Pue's cousin started invading the area. Wow, I recognize that smell! A porcupine must be making his way through camp! Hey, I learned something "Alaska wise" today! Another thing worth mentioning here is that with Elliott glacier up above camp, there is a massive and constant "roar" of the waterfalls coming down the mountain from the melting snow. That roar, coupled with binoculars to look at the incredible and long waterfalls shooting down the mountains, cannot be properly described in print. You can look up at the waterfalls with or without binoculars, and see these ragging waterfalls and shooting streams gushing with water, hundreds of feet in length. A spiritual experience is all I can say.

After some ground beef cooked on an open fire beside the RV around 8 p.m. (still lots of daylight), we decide to walk around some more. The trails in this campground are incredible, with elaborate boardwalks in marshy areas, and well kept trails with small rock beds. As we walk along, I decide to try a wild stunt. Walk out across the creek in the bone chilling glacier fed stream. My wife wants to document this for fun. I instruct her on how to use the camera, empty my pockets and head out. WHY am I doing this? Fun I guess. I have always prided myself on being tough with the cold. I have shot video in minus 50 degree weather in Alaska, went swimming and taken a bath in The Great Smokey Mountain National Park in the dead of winter, and so I thought I would "play" in the glacier fed streams of Alaska. Easy enough to just walk out into the stream. It was probably in the low 40's in temperature. What I did NOT know was that contrary to the deep south. Alaska does not have any of those smooth rocks and pebbles in streams. I was bare footed doing all of this. BIG mistake! It was like taking your shoes and socks off, and lightly walking across a thorn patch. It could also be compared to spreading thumb tacks across a wooden floor and lightly walking across them. MAN did this hurt! Never mind the cold water. Get me out of these thumb tacks! Needless to say, a short excursion. Alaska rocks are pretty much this way everywhere. They do have some colorful round granite rock-white with black specks, but the remaining rocks are jagged, rough, and sharp! After returning to camp and resting some more, we decide to take another walk down a different trail. Needless to say, since our exercise earlier in the day into dense foliage, I now carried the bear pepper spay can on my side where ever we go now. Our 10:00 p.m. to midnight excursion turned out to be one of the most memorable hikes I will always remember. Pictures from that hike are posted here on this blog. The clouds and sunset picture was taken about 11:30 p.m. that night. As the sun was low, there was still plenty of daylight to get around in the woods. It just made the place magical with the light. The glacier I described, the waterfalls, the mountains with different shades of foliage, took on different colors and shades as the sun set lower in the horizon. I could have stayed out all night! Soon around 11:30 p.m., my body told me it was time for bed. I polled my family and they were not ready to go to bed. There is daylight we are wasting! After a little bit of thought about this, I told my wife to take the bear pepper spray and her and the daughter could walk on more if they wanted to. They said they wanted to go down and see if any moose came out to graze in a marsh near the campground. I told them to just be careful and go on, but to STAY on the trails. They agreed and so I crashed for the night. Most folks would say yes, he is crazy for allowing his 24 year old daughter and wife to march off down the trails without him, but I had this feeling that it would fine. There were no bear warnings whatsoever at this campground, and besides, she did have a hugh can of bear pepper spray. Going to sleep that night was not a problem. That cool upper 50's temperature making it's way into the camper, the roar of the waterfalls up on the mountains, and a gentle breeze, made it a "knock me out" time of sleeping. I barely remember my crew returning from the moose walk. They said they got in around 1 a.m. but saw no moose. Another blissful day ends at my second home and paradise.

Friday-July 15th- This we knew, was going to be sort of a bummer day. It was going to be a day to slowly head back to Anchorage and start preparing to turn the camper in on Saturday morning. I pull out hoping to say good bye to my new Alabama friend, the camp host. No sign of him. Everything locked up and vehicle gone. Oh well. Maybe I will see him another day up here. Before we turn in the keys so to speak on the beautiful place, we decide to go take the boat that carries you out to Portage Glacier. It is only about 4 miles down the road from the campground, so why not! As I mentioned earlier and above, Portage Glacier is one of many that is attached to the Harding Ice Field. The Harding Ice field goes for several hundred miles in the mountains. Glaciers are like information from another planet for folks in the lower 48. They are a science of their own. Glaciers move up to one foot a day taking and ripping anything in their path. Mountains are carved out and reshaped by glaciers. As we board the boat to take us out into Portage Glacier Lake, the real facts they tell you start to sink in, and they are very interesting. Portage Glacier Lake, because of its altitude and being glacier fed, is totally void of ANYTHING living, other than ice worms. The ice you see from the glacier can be as old as 75 years old. This lake is hugh! It is probably 3-4 miles across and 1-2 miles wide! There is nothing living here. Also, a Park Ranger onboard the vessel tells us this area receives 40 feet or more of snow each winter. They have to dig the boat out of the snow, shovel and dig out the buildings we boarded the boat at and the visitor center we talked about earlier in this blog. 40 feet of snow! Can you imagine the task of digging this place out every year preparing it for the tourist season. After this wonderful and breathtaking ride, it's time to head back in and take back the road in the RV. Well worth the trip, visiting a living glacier in front of you is very rewarding!

As we leave Portage Glacier Valley, we head back up the Seward Highway. As we pass the Kenai Welcome center on the right, I look out and see crews from the Alaska railroad working. Looking closely, I see my buddy Joe! Pretty cool and what are the odds. Joe, you may recall, was my good friend that was going to put us up after we arrived in his dad's remote cabin on the lake near Anchorage. This all fell through when he took the job with the Alaska railroad. It was interesting to pull out in the middle of no where and see him working on the tracks! As we truck on down the road, I decide to make a tour of Girdwood. Girdwood is a Alaska Ski resort town about 40 minutes out of Anchorage. We take a tour of this small town. Not very much to speak of. It is "rough looking" as most towns are in Alaska, because of the harsh winters they have. By rough I mean they have dirty grit sand in all the parking lots, curbs, and everywhere. Due to the messy roads they have about 9 months out of the year with snow, it is just hard to really see a super clean parking lot or road as you would in the states. We drive on up to the Aleskya Ski Resort Lodge at the base of the mountain and notice a large tram going up to the top of the mountain. We had called about this earlier and decided this might be a good place to play on Saturday.The lodge looked super nice and super expensive. The ski Resort area did in no way match the town of Girdwood in terms of neatness. It was like apples and oranges. After we explored the town, we drove back out to the Seward Highway intersection and had pizza. I got to hand it to Alaska. They sure know how to make some good pizza, but boy do they eat pizza! These are everywhere! My wife and daughter did not care too much for what we had, but I enjoyed it. We all decided definitely we need to come back on Saturday to the resort, go up the mountain on the tram and check out the views. The weather has been super fantastic the last couple of days with tons of visibility.

Arriving in Anchorage, it is all "mundane" details from here. Pull into the RV "trailer park" in downtown Anchorage, wash clothes, and start the tedious task of cleaning up the RV before turning it in Saturday morning. Friday night was spent uploading my pictures of the day to friends on facebook, washing clothes, and general RV cleanup. Laying down in bed that night, all 3 of us had the sinking feeling. The horrible thought that this play world we have bathed in for some 9 days was about to start winding down. What a horrible thought to have but a necessary evil in life. We decide we have got to get up early Saturday morning to get going. There was lots to do and short time to do it in. The plan was to go out to the airport in the a.m., pick up our rented SUV, turn the RV in over across town, and then head on back down to Girdwood and the Alyeska Ski Resort in our new rental SUV.

6 a.m. hit hard and early, with so much daylight the night before pushing us to going to bed around 11:30 p.m. We bolt up out of our beds, well at least my wife and I do. My daughter takes a little longer. I remember those early years in my life. It took me forever to get out of bed. We head over for a large breakfast at the Peanut Shack, a popular spot in the evening for locals and tourists. Breakfast though, obviously is not there most favorite place in town because there was only 1 table with customers eating breakfast. There were only about 14 other tables left open. We order a massive Alaska breakfast, pay our $45.00 for breakfast for 3, and head out.

After turning in the RV, getting a clean bill of health from them, we are off! We race back down the Seward Highway to get to Aleyski Ski Resort. Before I take you through the days activities at this neat place, lets talk about prices and Alaska. For all the good I have said about Alaska, there is one thing that is bad. That is the summer pricing. You have probably heard the stories about Alaska, Hawaii, and other tourist places in the United States. I can testify that yes, Alaska is VERY expensive IF you go in the summertime as 90% percent of all tourists do. How expensive? Well, let's take Anchorage. I have been there many times in the winter and in the summer. The Fairfield-Marriott, for example in Anchorage goes for $99.00 per night during the off season. Hey, this is great! You pay that in Nashville, Tennessee, or Portland, Maine. NOW, lets take that some place and try and stay there in mid-June. The rate is suddenly $225.00 per night. Wow! Is this tourist gouging or what? Needless to say, if you stay in a hotel for 2 weeks straight, do the math. That's a large chunk of change to eat, sleep, and be merry in a 16 by 12 room. Rental cars? You are looking at around $350.00-$400.00 for a weekend. I have paid that in the states for a weeks rental. So with all of that being said, consider the cost of food to be doubled as in the lower 48, the cost of lodging to be doubled in the summer months, and rental cars higher as well. At $179.00 per day rental on the RV, it seemed to average out better than hotels, especially since you have total freedom to go wherever you want to and not be restricted to "driving back to the hotel" after a full days activities. Our coming and going days we stayed at Microtel, a chain I rarely would ever stay in while in the lower 48. Their rooms are small, cramped and breakfast is weak, but hey, for $150.00 per night, I will take it. The one in Anchorage is pretty clean and well managed. They only thing we laughed about and I forgot to mention earlier, was that a 1 hour walk near the hotel the night we arrived, yielded a nice red tent set up in a wooded area right smack in the middle of a major highway and road interchange! It was just a few feet off the walking paved path, one of many they have in Anchorage. Two hours arriving with my family into this large city that Thursday evening and we see our first homeless shelter. According to locals, Anchorage has hundreds of homeless people. The city hosts the most homeless shelters in the nation. It has been and continues to be a major problem in Anchorage.

Upon our arrival at Aleyski Ski Resort, we park and head for the tram. WHY are seemingly so excited to go up a tram to a Ski Resort in the middle of the summer? Good question. The answer is because of little clouds, there is absolutely stunning views of the valley and surrounding mountains. Locals in shops talked about it while we were running around. It looked like a great way to wrap up the trip. As we started up the tram, the young girl running it starting spitting out all the "useless factoids" to most folks. But for me, my audio recorder was running in my head on every word she said. As the tram went up the mountain, things got better, and better, and better with the view! Riding a tram in a place like this is like taking a helicopter up. It not only underlines the sense of size of the area, but shows you what a "spec" you were down the Seward Highway just 15 minutes earlier. Aleyski Ski Resort is the states main ski resort. Practically anyone that skies on slopes in Anchorage will make the drive down. At the top of the tram is a fairly large building that houses shops, a restaurant, a overlook, a gift shop, and several other facilities. When we are getting off the tram, a lady tells my wife, "There is a black bear just on the other side of the ridge". My wife passed that on to me as we exited the tram. End of story. We check out the building to see what is going on, and decide it's time to hike up the mountain. Since it is in the middle of summer there is no snow to ski on. What everyone seems to be doing is hiking and exploring the area. As we came up on the tram, the young lady pointed out that many people are hiking "The North Face" trail. She pointed down below us and we noticed a very pronounced trail that has hundreds of "switchbacks". It winds it's way up the mountain. As you see from the pictures attached, the mountains pretty much all have a slope going all the way to the top. We saw lots of people making the climb up, some even running as if training for a upcoming marathon. We start hiking up the mountain above the tram and resort headquarters at the top of the end of the tram. I am snapping pictures and shooting video of this amazing place with absolutely stunning views. One of those views is posted on this Blog. It is a view of my wife and daughter down below me and it looks out to Turnigan Arm and down at Girdwood. We decide to climb on up to the snow line and shoot some pictures in the snow. As I turn back and look down at some of the other people near the lodge, to my left and just on the other side of the ridge top, out pops a black bear. In a matter of seconds we have a bear out in full view up at the resort. With my news blood still in me from working at a TV station in the early 80's, I pull out my video camera and start shooting video. I see people starting to see him and some start freaking out! They run over and snatch up their young childern. Some pick up rocks and start tapping them together. Some stand still in disbelief! It looks like about a one year old Black Bear. Not quite enough to classify it as a "cub" but very young. After a few seconds of a standoff with the crowd, it became apparent that this club wanted to go through the cloud, over the hill and advance on down to the city of Girdwood to get into mischief. The interesting thing is that the "sound" that drove him into a mad dash run to get out of everyone's way was not their voices. It was a single middle aged lady who bent down and picked up rocks. She was hitting them agains each other. That sound sent the bear running over he hill and down right under where the sky resort is located. Wow! Bears do appear when you least expect it! I got it all on video to. That was cool and interesting to watch.

As we head on up higher, we stop occasionally to sit down and take a breath of air, absorb the scenery, and take pictures. I suddenly catch myself taking one, two, three, 10, 11, and 12 pictures. Every direction I turn yields some of the most unique pictures. I pull out my iPhone, snap a picture, and immediately post it to facebook. That topped it off. Being able to share it live and real time practically back with my fb friends. I got a lot of joy out of sharing this trip as it evolved with my fb friends. I think that is a really neat thing to be able to do now days. After some time of walking, we decide that we should go all the way up to the snow line. we saw others doing it, so why not. As we get up to the snow line, my daughter tries to do the old tail slide down the mountain in the snow. It looked fun! I did not try it, but shot video of her doing it. My wife pointed out that she was not the least bit tired from all of the hiking! I told her thats because you don't have to breath 80% humidity like you do at home, thus you do not perspire as much. My wife and daughter were intrigued by that fact. We start back down the mountain and walk back into the main building where the tram arrives and departs. As we walk in, I look down and see a large pack on the floor. I look at the shop in front of this pack. It is a company that advertises paragliding lessons. I may have to check that out again in a minute! We go in and order lunch. Wow, I was shocked! Not only was it high priced, as it always is, but was good! We rest, relax taking on the views of the valley in the restaurant with it's large windows. We decide to get up and head outside to the observation decks. Out by the observation decks is a gift shop. All around this shop are decks to walk around in a 360 and take on the views. As we walk around to the far side looking down at Girdwood, we spot a full Paraglider spread ont eh ground on the top of the hill with an instructor. He is going over all the safety stuff with him. Both are standing up and the chute lays on the ground below them. We soon realize that the man in front is a "rookie", and the man standing behind him will be piloting the paraglider. We soon find out that for $195.00, this company will send you off the mountain, with an instructor riding behind you. You soar like a bird all over the valley and come down lightly on a field down below. My family starts encouraging me to do this. I start encouraging myself to do this. I am thinking yes! Let's do this. But then more of the reality sets in. Well, I am thinking, this will put us real late back to the hotel. We have to fly out 1 a.m. on Sunday morning. You had better pass it up this time I am thinking. My wife and daughter counter that with "do this! You may not get another chance in life to do this!" After about 20minutes of mulling this over in my head, I decide to go talk to them and see how long it would be and what it would take. They inform me about 45 minutes to over an hour wait time. OK, that did it. I guess we will just go. I knew at that time, as I know now, that decision will haunt me the rest of my life. I should have done this! It looked so peaceful. The instructor basically pilots it but hands the controls over to you from time to time. The Pilot also wore a reserve parachute. If you have the time and are curious about Paragliding, go to Wikipedia and read the definition between Paragliding, Parasailing, and hang gliding. It will open your eyes to a new and wonderful sport that is done apparently all over Alaska. We saw this same thing at Hatcher Pass, mentioned at the first of this blog. Folks have been known to catch "thermals" and stay up over an hour or so, just coasting like the eagle or buzzard does in those thermal wind currents in the air! After an awesome day on Aleyski, its time for the dreaded word, head home.

Arriving in Anchorage that afternoon, we decide to do a full out feast at the Sourdough Mining Company. This is a very popular local place to eat some great food. I order Prawns, something I have not had in a long time. I snap a few pictures of the inside of this place. Old and rustic, it is the perfect place to end a wonderful trip. We return to the hotel where I have us a room booked, although we will not be spending the night here. Our flight, called the "red eye" flight out of Anchorage, leaves at 12:45 Sunday morning. As we chill out in the hotel, we sweat about the shirts and all the tourist "stuff" we bought. Why are we sweating about it? Because of the weight! Baggage cannot be over 50 pounds each, and coming up, we were close to that! Around 10 p.m., we head on over to the airport, a ten minute drive. We turn in the car, check in and watch the scales. My wife-44 pounds, my daughter-48 pounds, me-51 pounds! Dooaaaah! The lady smiles and says "don't sweat it", picks up the bag and plops it on the conveyor belt behind her. Man, I was happy for that! If she said no, then we all three would have had to embarrassingly open all 4 baggages and redistribute the weight. Not really a problem, but not a good thing with about 25 people in line standing behind you very ill! After that is out of the way, we are "thinning ourselves down" by only having our carry on baggage. As we go through security, it really hit me. All of this red tape and all of this hassle, because some crazy idiots from another country crashed some planes into our buildings. They are dead and we are suffering the consequences many years later. I know, I know. A necessary evil for the further protection of our citizens from harm. As we successfully get passed through this checkpoint, we head to the gate. Sitting around and waiting, we notice that nothing was happening and we were about 20 minutes from take off time. Finally, that dreaded message ( if you fly a lot) comes on..... "Ladies and gentleman, those of you departing Anchorage on XXX service to Salt Lake City..the pilot has made a walk through on the outside of the plane, and discovered a large section of oil on the pavement underneath one of the engines. We have called for a mechanic to check it out. Please stand by and we will keep you updated". Oh boy, here we go! I knew from that point, we were totally hosed on all connecting flights, and I was absolutely right. The flight was delayed and we did take off, but an hour behind schedule! That immediately put us on other flights and routed us to Atlanta. Was started out on the way up with a 12 hour ordeal to get to Alaska, ended up with a 17 hour ordeal getting home. To add insult to injury, if you count from the time we got out of bed Saturday morning in Anchorage until we laid down in bed in our home town, was 30 hours straight! I managed to grab about 4 hours sleep on the plane. My wife and my daughter cannot sleep on planes, and so their time to rest was only about 2 hours of sleep. It always takes me a day or two to adjust to the time change (Alaska is 3 hours behind Central time) and for my body to get back in sync on what time it is to sleep, to eat, to get up, and to function. My family did not know how to handle "total darkness" after the return. We had not seen full darkness nighttime in 9 days!

So this wraps up one of those once in a lifetime type trips. Although I vow that this will not be THE trip. It will be one of many more if the Lord is willing. As I always have said since 1986 and will continue to say today: "I will be back!" This time, I was blessed to have my wife and my daughter both say: "WE will be back! Mission was successful. Successful in that I was able after 20 something years to convince my wife and daughter to travel with me to Alaska. Successful in that 20 years of collecting air miles on my business trips brought them here, and thus my prayers back in the 1980s came true. Both my wife and daughter were "floating" on a high from the trip, for almost a week and a half later. My daughter commented "It just all seems like a dream, a place too good to be true now. I wish I were back there". My wife made the same comments. So we all made a pack to come back to this amazing place. I have friends that I have come close to there, scenery that only God can create, and the only thing left is the stuff we dread dealing with: Making a living there? If the family could survive a winter there (My wife openly admits no, she cannot do it, but would love to spend every summer up there). The last issue is oh yeah, the money. It always seems to come back to the money. Wonder why that is? DAH!..But as my new found camp host stated so well...."If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time". So with that said, the planning and saving money for the next journey to THE GREAT LAND (aka..God's Country!) is already underway.