Welcome

The CoolRVers are actually a couple of retirees, Judy and Luke Rinehimer and our 5 year old German Shepherd Dog, Miss Shady Lady. We are "extended-time" travelers with a home in Cool, California. Thanks for following along with us as we travel North America in our "rolling condo", enjoying the RV lifestyle. Your comments are always welcomed.



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Friday, July 29, 2011

Valdez, Alaska

Valdez logo-vcvbValdez, located at the back end of Prince William Sound, is another small waterfront town that was totally re-built after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.  Unfortunately, it later had another disaster hit that put this little town on the global map:  the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989.

Oh, you can read and learn about the Exxon Valdez oil tanker running aground near the Bligh Reef on another Good Friday, March 24, 1989, but folks here want to focus on today and the role Valdez has played in the sea transportation, oil exportation, and seafood processing businesses that keeps the economy going in Alaska.  (For the record, approximately 11 million gals of oil covered 1300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean.  Surface clean-up of the oil spill is complete but scientists are still studying the long-term consequences.  You can read more about it here.) 

Valdez is the southern terminus point for the 800-mile Trans-Alaska oil pipeline which begins near the Artic Circle in Prudhoe Bay.  The construction of the pipeline and marine terminal gave Valdez new life and today has a population of over 4,000.   We were able to drive to the IMG_5928entrance of the terminal and our tour boat floated past the pipelines and tanks, but no tours inside.  The crews work 12 hour shifts but we saw very little action.  There was one tanker being escorted by a tug, but that was it.

While serious about their security, they did have a sense of humor when it came to their speed limit sign.  Since alcohol was a factor in the 1989 oil spill, note that no alcohol or illegal drugs are allowed on site.  Duh….

The town still attracts transient workers and we saw housing dormitories near the seafood packing houses as well as across from the airport near our campground.

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You can tour the town of Valdez in just a couple of hours (or less).  Marinas are always fun to explore and finding a popular ice cream vendor on a warm afternoon means extra time standing in line. 

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Meeting Friends Along the Route

It is always great to find friends (and friends of friends) when traveling.  While we may be thousands of miles away from our usual RVing areas, we have had many opportunities to meet up with RVers we know from the Escapees, the Boomers, the Winnebago-Itasca Travelers (WITs), rallies, blog readers and others.

A recent encounter was at a highway pull-out not far from Glennallen en route to Valdez.  We have been playing “tag” with members of an Adventure Caravan tour group at many of our stops in Alaska.  While taking a break, we met Dot and Mel Bolton, vendors from various RV rallies we have attended.  In exchanging the usual “where are you from” answers, we discovered they were from Pacifica, CA, just south of San Francisco, and just up the road from where my maternal grandparents had an artichoke and brussel sprouts ranch when I was a little kid.  It was fun naming streets and family names they were familiar with.  Then, an even greater coincidence happened when they learned we were from Cool, California.  They have friends in their Good Sam RV Chapter, Jeanie and Carmen Mini, who live just a couple of blocks from us and with whom I have golfed and camped with during our club’s golf trips.  Love small world stories.

The next encounter was actually one we were looking forward to.  Donna and David Rumrill, SKP Boomers and WITs, are leading a WIT Caravan through Alaska this summer.  They had shared their itinerary with us and Valdez was the only place our paths were going to cross.  We both had tour schedules to work around, but we did make it over to their Bear Paws Campground for a late evening visit.  (We have an Itasca motorhome and are also WITs – #127127 – so it was also fun meeting members of their tour group, too.) 

IMG_5949While we forgot to have someone snap a photo of us, they did stand outside their beautiful waterfront camping site to wave to us the next morning as we headed for our Columbia Glacier tour.  We took a photo of them taking a photo of us as we headed out of port.

Columbia Glacier Tour

One of our TourSaver coupons was for a 7 hour tour boat to the Columbia Glacier.  Columbia is considered the second largest “tidewater” glacier in America and the largest in Prince William Sound.  We took the Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Tour IMG_6076and Stan, himself, piloted us through the Port of Valdez, Valdez Arm, into Columbia Bay then home past Bligh Reef, Galena Bay and Jack Bay.  Along the way he told historical stories of the area and noted points of interest, waterfalls, and various wildlife habitats. (See the Wildlife section below.)

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The scenery along the way was pretty spectacular but we were in awe when we approached the Columbia Glacier in the far distance and the ice fields that loomed straight ahead of us.

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Captain Stan explained that this glacier is retreating more rapidly than any others.  Just this summer, it has moved another mile and the resulting ice flows have prohibited some tours from actually reaching the glacier for up-close views.  He did successfully get us very close.  Where we turned around was not accessible just the two previous weeks because of the icebergs.  He said we were “in uncharted waters”.

As we moved into Columbia Bay, the icebergs surrounded our boat.

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After a while we started giving the icebergs shape names.  I thought this one looked like a plane had landed on the water.

 

As we approached the foot of the glacier we could see that the left side and the right side were no longer connected.

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This is what the land looks like AFTER the ice has retreated.

 

 

We also got to feel the cold temperatures as we watched the icebergs around us.  We were told to “dress in layers” and we definitely needed to.  The deck hands also collected a piece of ice for people to inspect.  Unlike other glacier tours we have been on, they did not offer to sell us “Glacial Margaritas”.

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WILDLIFE

Besides being on a glacier tour, our guides gave us plenty of wildlife to look at both around the Port of Valdez and in the open waters of Prince William Sound.

We used to get excited to spot one or two sea otters floating on their backs.  Here we learned what a “raft” of otters looks like. 

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Stellar Sea Otters apparently don’t mind the cold as we found many of them “sunning themselves” on icebergs floating by us.

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And when they are not on the ice, they will find rock formations along the shore.

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The greatest wildlife thrill, however, was tracking a pod of humpback whales and capturing a “tail slap” with my camera.  Check another one off the “bucket list”.

Our bucket list also included watching grizzly bears hunting for fish and Valdez was certainly a place to see this.  While some people pay IMG_6218big bucks for a bear watching flightseeing trip, we simply drove around the Port of Valdez to the local fish hatchery on Dayville Road where bears frequent so often, they have marked their crossing.

Our first sighting was a huge brown bear that was pretty lazy when it came to getting his dinner.  He simply climbed around on the rocks where spawning salmon had jumped to soon and had stranded themselves among the rocks.  This grizzly simply had his fill (and left the remains for the awaiting gulls).

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He also tried a little fishing from the water at the mouth of the fish hatchery.  Obviously, not too difficult.

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Visiting the hatchery became a nightly outing for us as well. One night we found a young grizzly fishing along the rocky banks where human fisherman normally cast their lines.  I caught that one on video and have posted it on YouTube: Bear fishing along the shore.

Another night we found a bear busy hunting for dinner in a pond not far from the hatchery.  I shot stills, while Frank King captured the catch on video: Grizzly fishing in a pond.

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The bears were not the only ones taking advantage of the salmon run at the fish hatchery.  While anglers had to stay 300 feet away from the fish ladder, the sea lions just floated right into the mouth of the hatchery.  We saw as many as 7-10 huge sea lions diving for dinner.  They also discard fish remains for the waiting birds.

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CIMG2830Finally, we can’t forget our campground black bear.  This little guy meandered through our section of the Valdez Glacier View Campground many times during our stay.  You can believe we were on high alert when it came time for walking the dogs.

 

NEXT:  Valdez to Tok to Kluane River

 

 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Kenai, Salmon, and the Fish Camp

[Note: This a long posting about Alaskan Fishing.  It may not be your interest, but it was pretty fascinating for us.]
One thing we have learned on our trip to Alaska is that Alaskans LOVE to fish.  Oh, I’m sure there are other things the locals enjoy, but when it comes to mid-July, all attention is focused on when the salmon start to run.  Campground rates go up, the highways fill with trucks and RVs with AK license plates, and there is plenty of vacation time booked for this time period by the Alaskan residents.
Sport Fishing, Subsistence and Personal Fishing
When it comes to fishing, we are tourists with a camera.  We have had plenty of opportunities to take charter boats out for halibut and salmon, but we don’t fish.  We have admired the catches when the charters return.  Some of our traveling RVing friends have caught 40-90 lb. halibut, filled their extra freezers, and even had the local fish packing businesses ship their hauls under dry ice to anywhere FedEx or UPS does business.  We order our fish off the menu at local restaurants.
Sport fishing satisfies the tourist while “subsistence” fishing is big time for Alaskans.  According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, all Alaska residents, and ONLY Alaska residents, are eligible to participate in both Subsistence and Personal Use fisheries. To see the complexities of where and when Alaskans can fish, check out the matrix on the AFG website.  Much of that fishing begins in mid-July along the Kenai River.  You can probably guess where we were when the fish left their “staging” area off-shore and headed for their spawning grounds – and all the awaiting Alaskan fishermen.
Connecting with Real Alaskans
A while back I posted we had renewed contact with our former neighbors, Janet and Howard Pelton, who had moved from Cool to the Kenai/Soldotna area many years ago because they loved the fishing in the Kenai Peninsula area. (BTW, at 87, they are still doing some RVing but now have moved to the lower-48 to be near family in E. Wenatchee, Washington.)  When they heard we were coming to Alaska they jumped right in and put us in contact with their close friends, David and Jayne Bredin, who live in Anchorage but have property right along the Kenai River.  Every time we heard from the Peltons we were told we had to go to the Bredin’s “fish camp” starting July 15.  These folks are “real” Alaskans!  While we were in Anchorage the Bredlins came over to meet us and personally invited us to visit during “fish camp”. 
Learning about Fish Camps
Fish camps were new to us until we came to Alaska.  On multiple cultural heritage tours we learned how the Natives would relocate to valleys in the spring to hunt and then move to the river’s edge every summer to fish, filet, and dry their catch to sustain them (and their pets) through the winters.  These “fish camps” would often have a “fish wheel”, cutting table, drying racks, and a smokehouse. Families worked together during the long summer days and passed along their skills and oral histories around campfires or in huts during the late evenings.
Below: This is a fish camp at the Old Chena Indian Village we saw during our Riverboat Discovery tour near Fairbanks.  The Chena tour guide demonstrated how the salmon caught in the fish wheel (the contraption in the water) would be fileted, dried, and then smoked.
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Luke checks out this hunting cabin from an Dena'ina Indian encampment we saw along the Susitna River during our jet boat tour from Telkeetna. The tall structure is called a “cache” where food and gear were stored (hopefully) out of reach of the wildlife.  The fish camp would be closer to the river’s edge.
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Modern Day Fish Camp
Today’s fish camp isn’t really much different.  When we arrived at the Bredin’s “fish camp” on July 16th, the “reds” (Cohoes salmon) and the “silvers” were just starting to make their way to the spawning grounds off Cook Inlet and up the Kenai River.  The fisherman were also making their way from all over the state to the Kenai Peninsula to catch their limits.
The Bredin’s place was already packed with pick-up campers, Class C motorhomes, and a number of tents.  There was no room for us or the Kings so we stayed again in nearby Soldotna, three free overnight parking courtesy of the local Fred Meyer Store.  BTW, commercial campgrounds raise their prices about $10/night in July and still fill up.
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We were warmly greeted by David and Jayne and given a tour of the “garage” that the Peltons converted into a downstairs kitchen and eating area and the upstairs “apartment” they created with windows overlooking the Kenai.  The big attraction, however, was the “bluff” where benches, picnic tables, pole racks, and a steep ladder awaited those headed for the dock below.. 
Dave shows Luke the view from the bluff directly above the horseshoe bend of the Kenai River.  Frank and Gloria King also enjoyed the view.
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 A boat dock awaits at the bottom of this very steep staircase.

Across the river from the Bredins’ fish camp is the popular commercial fishing outfitter, RW, who has a condo-based fish camp that runs about $800 per night!  The fish being caught on the shore and from the drift boats were non-stop.  The “run” had started!
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Dave explained his fish camp has been attracting regulars for the past 20 years.  (Jayne admitted that sometimes she doesn’t know all their guests, but if they are friends of a friend (of a friend), it doesn’t really matter.)  Alaskans are welcoming people as we discovered.
IMG_5648The first batch of “reds” arrived by ice chest on Saturday afternoon.  Approximately 45 fish were deposited in front of the fish cleaning station and the camp went into the packaging business.


After a quick rinse, Dave puts on his rubber apron and the cleaning begins. 

IMG_5658The fish are sorted by gender so the roe can be harvested for bait.
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The filets are then re-washed and moved to a large tent where they are sized, packaged with a date label, and then put into a commercial vacuum sealer before being frozen.  (We were not there when other fish was smoked.)
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On Saturday we were told we had missed seeing the 54 lb. King Salmon a young lady had caught.  On Sunday, when we returned for IMAG0439a second visit to the camp, another load of fish was delivered and this lady asked for a weigh-in.  The salmon weighed about 26 lbs. but I think she was pulling on the line when the photo was snapped.


Counting the Fish?
At the rate we saw salmon being caught, we wondered how many fish are caught on their way to the spawning grounds.  We were told not to worry; there were millions of fish and this year’s run is setting records.  And, how do they know?  They use sonar to count the fish at various locations along the spawning routes.  The Alaska Outdoor Journal publishes the sonar counts collected by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.
This chart shows that the average run during the past 21 years of counting has equaled about 1.27 million Sockeye caught on the Kenai River. Check out those “spikes” vs. the average represented by the dotted lines.   In the past week, approximately 829,000+ salmon had made it past all the commercial, subsistence, and sport fishermen.  There are so many fish that the ADFG has increase the limits and extended “dipnet” fishing to 24 hours a day through this weekend.
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Dipnetting
“Dipnetting” was another new term for us non-fishermen.  As mentioned earlier, Alaskan residents are allowed “subsistence” fishing and can literally stand at the mouth of the Kenai River or along designated rivers and use large nets attached to very long poles to catch their fish.  Last Sunday we took a drive to the municipal park in Kenai where Cook Inlet feeds into the mouth of the Kenai River to see what dipnetting was all about.  Some call it “combat fishing”.
IMG_5698View from the bluff above the mouth of the river where dipnetters lined both banks – in the rain.
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We then moved down to the beach to take in all the action.  The Alaskan residents have all different style nets, beach wagons, and cleaning stations.  It sounds gross, but after cleaning, the fish carcasses are left on the beaches to go out with the next high tides.
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After being caught, the fish were removed from the nets on the beach, rinsed in the river, and packed or fileted on-site.
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Shore Fishing
We also checked out the shore fishing action in downtown Soldotna.  Luke and Frank (the twins) stood at the top of the fishwalk to check things out before heading down to the river. IMG_5678
Gloria and I were impressed families are included in the fishing – if  you consider sitting in the rain waiting patiently as participating. This area was also handicap accessible. We worried if the guy at the end of the dock in the wheelchair might get pulled in if he caught a really big salmon.
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Fishing Elsewhere
It has been a week since our visit to the Kenai Peninsula fishing grounds.  As we have moved about, we have noticed that the fish run is just getting going in other areas.  On our way to Valdez, we stopped at the confluence of the Chitina and Copper River on the Edgerton Highway to look at the line of “fish wheels” buoyed near the shore.  They were working but we didn’t see any fish.
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We’ve also been visiting the fishing areas along the Port of Valdez and the only ones catching fish have been the Stellar sea lions and the grizzly bear we watched grabbing their dinners at the mouth of the local fish hatchery.  But that’s a different blog…….
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NEXT:  Valdez