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Week 5: McCarthy, AK and Glacier Trek

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I first visited McCarthy 13 years ago with my friend Lisa (photos from that trip), and ever since then I’ve wanted to come back and do a glacier trek. There are 2 bridges into McCarthy: one for locals (you need a key for the padlock to open the gate), and the other a footbridge. There is a huge campground next to the footbridge with great views, a few pit toilets, and a food truck selling hot dogs.

For my 60th birthday I treated myself to a 5 day trek out of McCarthy, Alaska. Five hard days of hiking with a 45-50 pound pack over glacier ice, rocks, mud, and a lot of bushwhacking. It was completely amazing. There were 4 of us on the trek: myself, my friend Leanne from Tucson, a great new friend, Alfredo, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Monet, our guide. We hiked about six hours per day. I’m so glad I did this while my knees and back could still handle it. We saw a total of 5 bears (2 were young cubs), but all were far away.

While I was trekking, Christine relaxed in camp, and did a tour of the Kennecott Mine (highly recommended), which I did when I was here in 2009.

The full set of photos of McCarthy and Kennecott are here, and photos from the trek are here.

Breathtaking views everywhere!
Hiked up a ridge for a better view of the glacier
Kennecott Copper Mill
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Week 4: Kluane National Park, Yukon

From Haines you have to cross the Yukon to get to the rest of Alaska. There are a complicated and randomly enforced set of rules on what food you can take when across the border. But Canada ended up letting us bring everything in, and the US just took away our citrus (even though it was purchased in the US).

Our first stop in the Yukon was the Congdon Creek Campground, right on Kluane Lake. This is the first time I’ve seen a campground with an electric fence for tent campers (to keep out Grizzly bears), and free firewood. We didn’t see any bears in the campground, but we did see a small grizzly near the road about 10 miles away. While there I hiked the Sheep Creek trail, which is a steep hike with amazing views. There was still a ton of ice on Kluane lake when we arrived, but most of it melted during the 2 days we were there.

Our next stop was back in Alaska in a great free campground in the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, which is known for great birdwatching. It’s fantastic place to break out the kayak.

Next on to McCarthy in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, America’s largest national park. On the way we stayed at Uncle Nic’s RV park in Copper Center Alaska. Wow, what an interesting place! They have an amazing model train of the Copper River Railway, and we had a great time talking with several locals, who were all interesting/odd characters.

Full are of photos for the week are here.

View from the Sheep Creek Trail, Kluane National Park
Ice on Kluane Lake
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Week 3: Ferry from Bellingham to Haines

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The three day ferry trip to Alaska was very relaxing. Day one was cloudy and rainy, so we could not see much, but days two and three were glorious. Along the way we stopped at Ketchikan, Wrangle, Petersburg and Juneau to let folks on/off before arriving in Haines. The ferry is quite comfortable in that government service sort of way. We had a two person cabin with a bunk bed, but the upper deck of the ferry was covered in tents for those wanting to save some money.

In Haines we stayed at the Oceanside RV park with fantastic views, and right next to several restaurants and bars. I was able to Kayak right from the RV park, while Christine did a 4×4 tour. There were humpback whales and bald eagles everywhere. A whale breached only about 100 yards from me while I was kayaking, which is pretty scary when you are in 45 degree water.

Unfortunately the famous Haines Hammer museum was closed while we where there, and we were a couple weeks too early to see the salmon spawning on the Chilkoot river. But we really liked Haines, and would come here again.

A full set of photos for week 3 is here.

Our Ferry: the MV Matanuska
View from the ferry
Camp spot in Haines

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North, to Alaska

105 weeks later than originally planned (thanks to COVID-19), on May 15, 2022, we departed for Alaska! We plan to be on the road until Oct 1. We spent 2 weeks working our way north to Bellingham, WA for the ferry to Alaska. (soundtrack for this post is here)

Usually I try to do a weekly blog post on our travels, but this one covers two weeks, so will be a bit longer than usual. Hopefully I’ll get back to weekly, depending on cell coverage. I’m writing this on day one of a three day ferry ride to Haines, AK. So far we’ve mostly only seen dark or fog, but it is now starting to clear.

Our first night was just outside of Medford, OR, then a quick lunch stop in Eugene with my buddy Steve, then on to check out Salem, the Oregon state capital. The following day we continued on to Olympia, the Washington state capital. Based on our short visits, both Salem and Olympia seem to be very livable cities. It was interesting comparing the capital buildings in each: The Oregon capital building (1938) was the least ostentatious capital building I’ve ever been in, and the Washington capital building (1928) the most ostentatious. I prefer the Oregon building.

We spent the next week meeting up with old friends: Jimmy D, bass player from my high school band, who lives in Belfair, WA, and Elinor and Mark, friends from Berkeley in the 90s, who live on Bainbridge Island. Elinor and Mark joined us for two of the four nights we spent camping at Heart O’ the Hills Campground in Olympic National Park.

Olympic National Park is huge, so we really only explored the northeast corner of the park. Most of the campgrounds in the park are ‘first come first served’, which is great if you arrive mid week. I did several long hikes (forced to turn back when I hit too much snow at around 5500 feet elevation). On the last day the four of us went to Sol Duc Hot Springs, which was quite nice. Both the hot pool and the cold pool were perfect temperatures. We then spent a night in Port Townsend on the way to Bainbridge, Island. We had a great meal in Port Townsend at ‘the Old Whiskey Mill’, which, according to the waitress, has the actual crew boat from the book The Boys in the Boat, which I really enjoyed reading.

Christine wanted to do a night in Seattle, so we left the van in Bainbridge and took the ferry over for one night. We had great cocktails at Zig Zag, and a great meal at Elliott’s on the wharf. We stayed at the brand new “CitizenM’ hotel next to the ferry port, which was quite disappointing. The room was about the same size as our van, and had no coffee maker or hot pot. All the lights and blinds were controlled using an iPad, which was really confusing. It took us about 10 minutes to figure out how to turn on the bathroom light!

Next was a very rainy week in North Cascades National Park. Two of the five days we were there it rained so much we never left the van. In between the rain I was able to hike, bike, and kayak. We spent the first 4 nights dispersed camping near a waterfall along Cascade River Road, and the last night (after the holiday weekend) in Colonial Creek Campground. I had no idea there were so many waterfalls in North Cascades National Park. Oh wait… Duh…

The campgrounds in this National Park have a very interesting reservation system: All spots are reservable, but if they are not reserved 24 hrs in advance, they are free. Apparently the park went ‘cash free’ 2 years ago, and the only way to pay is online. There is basically no cell service in the park, so if the site is not reserved, its free. The only catch is that you might have to move on with short notice if you want to stay a second night.

Then on to Bellingham to catch the ferry. Bellingham also seems like a very livable city, especially if you like west coast beer. There are 14 breweries in Bellingham, of which we sampled 2 of them.

Full set of photos for these two weeks can be found here.

North Cascades National Park
Olympic National Park with Elinor and Mark
Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park

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Puerto Rico, January 2022

The COVID Omicron wave peaked just as we arrived, so our 3 week trip to Puerto Rico ended up being very different than we had hoped. Everything had to close by midnight, restaurants and bars were at 50%, and no gatherings of more than 250 people. So needless to say the big San Sebastian Festival that we came for was cancelled, as well has New Year’s Eve festivities. So we ended up reading, watching Netflix and HBO, and sleeping a lot.

Here are a few random things about Puerto Rico that surprised me, probably just due to my ignorance:

  • More cats, and fewer chickens than the other Caribbean places I’ve visited (Jamaica, Granda, Belize, Cuba, coastal Columbia, etc.)
  • Most prices are about the same as the stateside, but Ubers were much cheaper. Usually around $7 to get across town. Rental cars were insanely cheap too at around $15/day.
  • PR has very strict COVID protocols everywhere! Most everyone wore masks, even outside, on hiking trails, riding bikes, etc., even tho the mask mandate was just indoors. And 100% if the restaurants we went to made you show a vaccine card to get in, even in the countryside.
  • PR has very loud frogs all night long!
  • Puerto Ricans love fried food!
  • The island has a lot more flat areas than I expected. San Juan is quite flat overall, which makes it a great city to get around by electric scooter. Bring a helmet.
  • PR cant seem to decide if they are metric or not. Gasoline is sold by the liter, speed limit signs are in MPH, and temperature is in Fahrenheit. Go figure.
  • Everywhere felt very safe, and we saw very very few homeless or beggars.
  • Watch out for Iguana roadkill everywhere.
  • PR is more Americanized than I expected, and seems to have every big US chain store. I’m told that only 15% of the population is truly bi-lingual, but it seems like everyone we encountered spoke English well.

We heard many horror stories about Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico 2.5 years ago. Sounds like most everyone had no cell phone or internet for a month, and no water or power for 3 (and in some cases up to 15) months. It’s hard to imagine going that long without power.

One thing that we did that we don’t really recommend was the Ron del Barrilito Tasting Tour, which lets you taste an $800 bottle of rum. We found the tour good, but the rum very unexceptional.

Full set of photos are here.

View of Old San Juan. Our apartment is just hidden on the left.
On the ‘pork highway’.
its a match!
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Dubrovnik, Croatia, September 2021 (and trip summary)

Dubrovnik was, as you might expect, pretty amazing. Walking the 1.5 mile city wall (with 1080 steps) is incredible. But even with COVID, it was quite crowded.

We are very glad we came here before the cruise ship industry is back in force. We were told that before COVID there were on average 4 ships per day, for a total of 10,000 passengers, here every day July-September. This year it’s only 1 ship per day at 1/3 capacity. Every local we talked to said it was unbearable getting around due to the traffic jams and hoards of pedestrians 2015-2019 that time of year. But I think the drop in cruise ships has somewhat been replaced by the increase in Americans, as there are now 8 direct flights per week between the US and Dubrovnik. Most of the tourists we encountered in Dubrovnik were American, unlike in other parts of Croatia, where most were German.

It’s hard to imagine Dubrovnik under siege from Serbia in 1991, as it is so pristine today. I did a 1.5 hour hike up to Fort Imperial on top of Srd mountain just outside the city, which was where much of the shelling was happening. There is a museum in the fort with photos and videos showing the attack on Dubrovnik. Crazy shit.

The most interesting part of our time in Dubrovnik was a day trip to the city of Mostar in Herzegovina, which was almost completely destroyed during the war in the 1990s. The iconic Mostar bridge was completely destroyed (watch here), but has been rebuilt in the original style.

Officially the region has two official alphabets, Roman and Cyrillic, and road signs are in both. But depending on exactly where you are in Herzegovina, in some places the Roman is crossed out, and in other places the Cyrillic is crossed out. Clearly there are still some strong feelings about the war. I could try to summarize all the conflicting things we heard about the war, but that would be longer than you’d want to read, and would probably be wrong. Short summary: it’s complicated and fucked up.

We went to Ston area to visit an oyster farm, and for more wine tasting. Seeing how they harvest the oysters was quite interesting, and eating them right out of the sea was amazing. After trying more Croatian wines, we still prefer Californian wine.

We went on a sunset dinner cruise with an amazing sunset view and so-so dinner, but we had low expectations on the food, so were quite satisfied. The boat was a replica of a ship from the 1500s or so.

Did you know that Dubrovnik is a cat lovers paradise? There are 100s of well cared for ‘stray’ cats everywhere, and most are surprisingly friendly. We saw a lot of cats in Split and Sibenik too, but Dubrovnik takes it to a whole new level. Christine found she had to factor in petting time when planning to go out on the town.

View of Dubrovnik from nearby hill
Oyster Farm
Mostar Bridge

Croatia Summary

What’s up with all the 80s rock/pop, Croatia? I’ve heard more 80s rock in the past month than in the previous 20 years. And not just in touristy places, but in taxis, buses, shopping area, etc. There seems to also be a bit of 80s Croatian rock in the mix, but mostly American/British rock. The times we had a rental car, it seems like all the stations played the same 80’s Rock, When it wasn’t 80’s rock, it was modern loungy versions of 80s rock (have you heard this lounge version of “Should I stay or should I go” from the Clash?) Maybe someone can explain the obsession with 80s music here to me?

Croatia is a very comfortable/ easy place to travel. Avoid August if possible. Prices are similar to most of the US (and cheaper than most of Europe, San Francisco, New York, London, etc). Sibenik was our favorite spot, as we found it a nice balance of historical and tourist activities without feeling like the town is just for tourists.

I haven’t said anything about Croatian food yet, as I’m hoping Christine will do a posting on that. I’ll only say that everything we had was excellent and reasonably priced. The biggest surprise was that there was almost no alternatives to Croatian food. We saw 1 Chinese restaurant near Plitvice, and it closed down during COVID lock down and never reopened. We also saw 1 Indian and 1 middle eastern restaurant, both in Zagreb, and 1 Indian place in Dubrovik. We also went to a good/unique Asian fusion place on Korcula. I’m sure there are others somewhere, but not very many (and I’m not counting the scattering of MacDonalds). This is very different from the rest of Europe.

COVID rates doubled in Croatia during the time we were here, but still way lower than in the US. Mask use dropped too, but not sure if that was due to city differences in the south or mask fatigue. Many people seem to wear the mask below their nose, especially younger people. But no one seems to be worried about Delta, and hospitalizations are low (or so we were told.)

Full set of photos for the final week of the trip are here.

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Split and Korčula, Croatia, September 2021

We decided to spend 2 nights in Split on the way to the island of Korčula, and are really glad we did. Split is built around an amazing Roman palace built by the emperor Diocletian. The combination of architecture (mainly from the 1st, 14th, and 17th centuries) makes for a really interesting mix.

Split is definitely a party town, and many bars were packed in the evenings, mostly with drunk, unmasked Germans, so we avoided those places. Nightclubs were still closed due to COVID tho.

Another highlight of Split is FroggyLand, a collection of over 500 anthropomorphic amphibians arranged in 21 cases. These dioramas were created by a Hungarian taxidermist, who devoted 10 years (1910-1920) to stuffing and meticulously arranging the frogs. There is a pithy commentary on each of the scenes, such as students in a classroom annoying each other. I’m not sure how this collection ended up in Split, but it is a must see if you are in the area.

After Split, we took a 2.5 hour very comfortable ferry to Korčula Island, where we had booked a great 2 bedroom (and 2 balcony) apartment with a view 10 minutes from the Korcula old town.

We rented a car for a day to explore the island. Its only a 45 minute drive from one end of the island to the other. We visited a couple wineries, but were pretty unimpressed with the local wines. The next day I rented an EBike to explore the northern shore of the island, which has several cute small towns along the shore.

Full set of photos is here. Next stop (and last stop) is Dubrovnik.

Split Palace
Froggyland
Korcula

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Zadar and Šibenik, August 2021

Our next stop was Zadar, our first town in the Dalmatia region of Croatia, and a very pleasant 4 hr ferry ride from Pula. Our apartment was a 15 minute walk from the old town. Zadar was heavily damaged in WWII (and again in the ‘homeland’ war in the 1990s), and is an odd mix of old and new, where new is mostly really ugly/basic buildings from the 50s/60s.

Speaking of the ‘homeland’ war: that’s the current politically correct term for that war that occurred here in the 1990s, according to one of our tour guides. Previously known as the “War of Independence”, it’s all pretty confusing to the outside world. I also asked many of our various tour guides what Croatians think about Tito, and all seemed to like him, but also said ‘it’s complicated’, and it depends on what region you are from. It sounds like he did a lot of good things for Yugoslavia, and some bad things too.

Besides wandering around the old town, activities in Zadar included a great sunset sail, a bike ride around Ugljan island (a short ferry ride from Zadar), and Christine making an amazing dinner with the fresh truffles we bought in Istria.

One of the ‘must do’ places to go in Croatia is Plitvice Lakes National Park. I agree it’s pretty special, but it was REALLY crowded. Just like many national parks in the USA, August is the wrong time of the year to go. But what can you do. We should have spent the night outside the park and gone early in the morning before all the tour groups arrive.

Next stop is was Šibenik, normally a 1.5 hour bus ride from Zadar, but 2.5 hours due to peak season traffic. Šibenik was the most picturesque town so far, and we had the best AirBNB of the trip (so far). We loved being right in the heart of a 500 year old city.

Other activities in Šibenik included a fantastic 60km guided eBike ride all around the region, and we took a ferry to Zlarin island to swim/snorkel. Speaking of snorkeling: there are no reefs in Croatia, so the snorkeling is not great, but the water is so amazingly clear that you can see everything there is to see very well. We saw tons of sea cucumbers, urchins, and lots of small fish at Zlarin.

Full set of photos is here. Next stop: 2hr bus ride to Split.

Helping out on the sunset sail.
Our apartment in Sibenik.

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Pula / Istria, Croatia, August 15-21

After our time in Zagreb we took a bus to Pula, the largest town in the Istria region of Croatia. Istria has a lot of Italian influences, especially in the food, and everyone must study Italian in school.

We stayed 1 block from Pula’s 2000 year old Roman Arena. It was really cool to walk past it every day. They even do gladiator shows there twice a week. We had a number of great meals in Istria, the best being at a tiny place called Backyard, which is literally the chefs backyard, and has about 7 small tables.

We rented a car for two days to explore the rest of Istria, and visited the coastal towns of Rovinj and Porec, the medieval towns of Groznjan and Motovun, and the ruins of Pietrapelosa Castle and Dvigrad. The rental car was a bright orange Renault Clio, a great little car, but crazy expensive ($215/day) this summer due to the COVID-induced rental car shortages.

We went truffle hunting in Buzet with the cutest truffle dogs (no one uses pigs here), and only found 1 truffle. It has been a very dry August, so not a great season for truffles.

While Christine did a pasta making class, I did a mountain bike tour of the area, and it turned out my tour guide is one of the gladiators! He swears that the fights are not rigged, and that they do sometimes get hurt. Here is a clip from YouTube. We also did a kayaking trip to a nearby island that is part of Brijuni National Park.

Full set of photos are here.

Next stop, Zadar.

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Zagreb, Croatia, August 2021

We decided to book a trip to Croatia to escape California fire season. Unfortunately we booked it 3 days too late, as 3 days before we were scheduled to fly out a 2000 acre fire broke out about 5 miles from our house, and we almost had to evacuate. Also, the Dixie fire, the largest fire in California history, is about 90 miles north of our place, and will likely be smoking out most of northern California for the next couple months.

Our first week in Croatia was spent in a nice AirBNB ten minute walk east of the city center ($55/night). (Map). As Croatia has only 4 million people (about the same as the state of Oklahoma), they do not expect anyone to speak their language, and its easy to get around with English (or German).

My biggest surprise about Zagreb was that there was a big earthquake here in 2020, and many historic buildings and museums are still closed and under construction. We had no clue! The earthquake happened 3 days after the world went into COVID lockdown, and only 1 person died, so maybe its not surprising that that it did not get much news coverage in the US. But unfortunately several of the top sites like the main cathedral, art gallery, and opera house are all still closed for repairs.

Zagreb must be one of the cleanest capital cities in the world. Absolutely no trash or homeless anywhere to be seen (at least in the city center). Quite a bit of graffiti, but thats all. Fantastic, cheap, clean public transit that goes everywhere, and very little noise or traffic (at least in August, when apparently much of the city heads for the coast). The city is also very green, with tons of well maintained flower beds everywhere, including a nice city maintained rose garden right in front of our apartment building,

Zagreb has an amazing cafe culture, and it seems like there is a cafe on almost every block. They are mostly open from 7am till 11pm, and serve mainly coffee in the morning, and mainly beer from 11am till 11pm, tho all types of beverages/spirits are available. Local beers typically cost $2.50-$3 dollars for a .5 liter bottle. My favorite local beer is Karlovačko, a Czech style Pilsner. Most cafes do not sell any food at all (not even pastries!), as apparently that requires a special license that most cafes do not have.

It was quite hot while we were here, with a high of 90-96F everyday. Our AirBNB had AC, but none of the museums, cafes, or restaurants did. But the restaurants and cafes all have 90% of their tables outside in the summer anyway (true before COVID too), so AC would not matter. There were very few tourists here, though it was not clear to me if that was due to COVID, or due to people avoid Zagreb in August due to the heat.

Due to the heat and jet lag, we had a slow, relaxed first week. I typically did a bit of exploring in the morning, hung around the apartment and read/napped in the afternoon, and then went out in the evening for a hot, sweaty dinner.

My favorite museums included the Museum of Broken Relationships, The Croatian Museum of Naive Art, and the Modern Gallery. Our favorite Restaurant was Restoran Uspinjaca at the foot of the world’s shortest funicular (only 66 meters long). The best bar we found was called Alcatraz, an actual dive bar on the inside (but inside of bars are still closed).

Speaking of COVID, luckily there is no Delta variant spike here (yet), so the spike of COVID stress at home is not here. But they are also still more locked down than in most of the US. Indoor bars / nightclubs are still closed, and no indoor gatherings of more than 50 people are allowed. Masks are still required indoors and on public transit, and I’d say about 80% of the locals seem to be following the rules in Zagreb. But, every local we talked to claimed the government was lying to them and that they did not need the mitigation measures.

Our favorite AirBNB experience was a food tour with Luka. We were able to try the local specialty, Strukli, which is a phyllo-like pastry stuffed with creamy cheese and sweet or savory fillings. We also did a day trip to a couple castles and wine tasting with ‘Ned’ which was so-so, but Ned introduced us to a wide variety of 70’s-80s Croatia Rock on the drive back.

Typical Zagreb street scenes are below. You can see the streets were pretty empty.

City center
Large photo in the City History Museum.

Full Set of photos are here. Next taking a bus to Pula.

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