Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Get Your Hands Off My Hubby

Hubby Allen as a gun-toting Sourdough
Enough. Enough!

I'm jealous. And  embarrassed -- a bit -- because I'm jealous.

But that woman dressed as a turn-of-the-centruy harlot is sitting on my husband's lap, pretending to kiss him. She does it once.

The audience  yells MORE!

She kisses him -- my husband -- AGAIN! The audience yells MORE MORE.

I want to yell STOP.

But I don't.

Because this is all make believe. I know It's all in fun. So she kisses him A THIRD TIME and I let her.

The floozie and my hubby
What's happening is we're at a dinner theater presentation just outside Denali National Park. I have a two-for-one coupon to get into the show, so we gussie ourselves up (we're camping, so we're a bit dusty) and drive the motorhome into Denali's neighbor, a little campy tourist town that one day, I'm sure, will rival Gatlinburg, Tenn., for its honky tonk.

Right now the town's just a few blocks long. And in those two blocks, every merchant tries to look more rustic than the next because, after all, this is Alaska and the tourists who come here want wild. They want rustic. They want wilderness. At the tip of their fingers.

So the merchants  dress themselves like sourdoughs (that's what Alaskans call themselves) and hang caribou and moose antlers over their doors. They sell guided raft trips, ATV tours and fudge to hundreds of tourists hauled into town by massive tour busses from cruise ships docked hundreds if of miles away in Seward and other ports farther south.

My hubby and me after we've made up
So that's the crowd we're mingling with. Cruise ship people. And that's the crowd -- a raucous bunch -- pushing this hissy to kiss my husband. Whose been swooped up out of the audience by the play actors to participate in this little historical performance about how Alaska became Alaska.

He's a gold miner. And he's got  a gun, a floppy hat and a few dastardly lines. He shoots a thief, saves the day, I guess, and that's why he gets the girl.

But enough. I want my husband back. I want him removed from the clutches of this tart. The audience cheers the smooch, and he returns to his seat. Next to me. Where he belongs.

Where he sits, still grinning.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

It's day Six at Denali National Park. And, still,  the Visitor's Center portion of the national park's Visitor's Center Campus remains a mystery.

The two other times we got within sight of the log-cabin structure (more like a log chalet), the masses of people thronging forth  encouraged us to stay away. But today's the day (well, evening) we join the zoo.

So we hop on our bikes and grind our way up a 1.5 mile uphill trail (puff puff, pant pant) intending to spend the whole evening inside the center, watching films, reading displays, listening to park rangers.

We're finally in sight of the building and we notice only few people milling about. Yeah!  As we pedal closer, the few people leave, en masse, toward a bus. And then we notice the center is dark.

In denial, I rattle a door. NO! It's locked! It's closed for the night. 

Rats!  I want a reward for the sweat I shed to get here. So I look on the windows and doors, searching for a list of things to do. Bingo! I find one: A lecture on Alaska's permafrost. It started a few minutes ago at the "Science Center" a few blocks away.  So we pedal over and make most of the talk.

Near the end, we realize we have only 10 minutes to get back to camp before the generator police arrest us (quiet time in these national parks is serious business and we've left our generator running.)

No problem. Easy ride. It's all downhill, the biggest reward for all that puffing and panting we did.

So we hop on, pedal past a few curves, then hold on for the ride as we zip downhill. Down and down we ride, gaining speed as we go, kicking up gravel, nearly flying when all of a sudden, not 20 yards away, a moose, a BIG moose, LEAPS onto the bike path and turns toward up, head on.

We slam on the brakes, startled, and slide to within 50 feet of this massive 700-pound creature, who is NOT happy.

Her ears twitch and twirl (moose do that when agitated), and then we see why. A baby moose, HER baby,  leaps out of the woods right next to her. He, too, is startled, but he doesn't hang around to twitch and stare. Instantly, he disappears back into the woods  to let Momma manage the moment.

And Momma does that well.

She stares us down, twitching and twirling her ears. Threatening us with her stance (and her size! She's easily 7-feet tall at the shoulder). So we back up, and back up and back up until she stops threatening to seriously hurt us.

And now we can breathe, because she's peaceful now. She no longer twitches and twirls and stares. 

But, she doesn't leave either.

Instead, she dines, alongside the bike trail. And her baby joins her, figuring, I guess, if Momma's not worried, I'm not worried. 

So it's our turn to stare, as they enjoy their meal. And all we can do is wait until they're done. And watch. And enjoy this, our biggest reward.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Glitz and Glamour, With Purpose

It rained all night and the mountains wear the fog and haze down past their midriffs. Everything sparkles from nature's bathing, the trees, carpets of lupines and even our bicycles. I inhale the air, slightly crisp mountain air.  Refreshing. Everything's clean, ready again.

We love our little neighborhood, here at Riley Creek Campground. Where most of the motorhomes are rentals and carry a slew of young kids, teens and their parents. They've come for the natural beauty of Denali National Park. Where red squirrels bark if you walk too close. A momma moose wanders around, foraging with her twins, just feet away from occupied campsites.

We represent the senior crowd, which makes up about 30 percent of the travelers in this campground.  This, we decide, is a young person's paradise. Because of the challenge of the white rapids, the hills and rocks to scale. The wild animals to out run!

We love the bicycling and hiking opportunities. And the youth. So we decide to sign up for seven more days. To do so, we hike to a little store, called a Mercantile, where we mingle with hikers, backpackers, again, all young, twenty-somethings, while we all wait in line to pay for the privilege of staying here.  So it's us, in this young person's paradise, and the wild animals.

But then again, there's this "place" here in Denali called the "Visitor's Center Campus."  I call it the Great Denali Circus,  the antithesis of natural and wild. Where we know there's an upscale grill there, with feeding stations and trendy foods like big, fresh cookies, veggie burgers and paninis. And we know there's a station for the Alaska railroad. But, what else?

So we visit.

We pull our motorhome into the confusing curly-que  parking lot and get stuck waiting for a tour bus to unload. then we see another one coming, so we quickly zip around the corner, where we find people walking in swarms through the lot, each swarm's trajectory leading back to a tour bus.

I look left and right. As I suspect,  people. Everywhere. People. People. And not the kind we find back at the campground. These people are old (so are we), and many are debilitated (we are not).

I'd say 98 percent of the hundreds of people hobbling around this "Circus" are seniors. Few wear hiking boots. 

We walk to the grill, blazing a trail meandering around the swarms, and find it packed, too. With these seniors, laughing, smiling, enjoying themselves. A few tour guides buzz about, tending to their hives, making sure everyone is comfy, making sure everyone knows what's next on the agenda.

Something clicks inside my head. Had it not been for this Great Circus, for the wide, flat accessible walkways, the buses, the railroad just outside the restaurant's back door, these people would be left out of this great life.

But here they are, breathing in this luscious air just like we do, preparing to see the tallest mountain in the North America, just like us.

What a great thing this is, this Visitor's Center Campus. It opens up this great national park to everyone.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where Has All The Wilderness Gone

We're in Alaska, where game outnumber people a gazillion to one. Where subsistence living is the law. Where natives live off the wild that feeds them salmon, caribou, sheep and moose.

And we're in Denali National Park, where the wild consumes more than 6 million acres.

In deference to the native diet and the rustic nature of this land, I want to taste caribou. Especially after I find a domesticated version (reindeer) is served in a stew ($6 a bowl) at a grill just inside the park border, near the Visitor's Center. What fun.

So we talk our friends into joining us for lunch at this little grill just inside this wild, rustic park. But first, we travel by shuttle (few cars are allowed) a short ways into the aspen and spruce wilds to learn about dog sledding, the only way people can get around inside the park in the winter.

We meet the dogs that live and work here, who survive this wilderness. We watch the rangers hitch up a team, then demonstrate on a gravel trail how engaged these dogs become when at work. These are powerful, focused dogs, thrilled because they get to pull, to mush, to run. To live in this consuming wilderness.

OK.The demo's done. Time for lunch. I'm excited.

We reboard the shuttle that cuts through this wilderness, then ... What's this sign? "Visitor Center Campus." Campus? What does it mean, Campus? We turn the corner and HOLD ON! We've passed through a wormhole or somehow got dusted with floo powder. Because we're not in the wilds anymore.

We're in Denali Grand Central Station, where tour buses, trains and tourists outnumber the game a gazillion to one.

I climb off the bus, reluctant to let go of my last connection to the wild, to step into this human traffic jam. It's surreal.

The four of us instinctively huddle close and scratch our heads. Where are we?  Which way do we go? People clog the pathways so we can't see beyond. My friend Rhodda hollers "Look!" "Baggage Claim." And, by golly, there's a log  facility with a sign over the door that says "Baggage Claim." What baggage?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Little Sugar Goes A Long Way

We're sitting around a campfire in Nenana, Alaska, eating the best-tasting s'mores, ever.

The chocolate's so old it's chalky. And the slightly hard marshmallows stick together. The off-brand graham crackers maintain a memory of crisp.

Roasted and combined they become devine. Magical. Because they come from the heart of two very fine people, Larry and Earl. Two older fellas (they teeter on both sides of 80), who share our campground and started this evening of camaraderie.

Larry (who looks like everyone' grandfather) showed up at our campsite shortly before dinner and invited me and Allen to a campfire and s'mores. He said he'd carried the fixings for 3,300 miles (from Oregon) and tonight's the first night's the weather's been good enough to do it build a fire and roast marshmallows.

How sweet, I thought. And yes, I said, we'd love to. So we do.

And we find Larry's also invited the United Nations: Johannas and Rike, a dentist and decorator from Germany; Adrian and Chantel, a young smoochy couple from Switzerland; Alan, a Hawaiian and retired nuclear engineer, and his wife Rhodda, a much younger Filipino; and Bob and Becky, a retired newspaper couple from Modesto, California.

We're a collection of differences, of uknowns, brought together by Larry and Earl, whose hearts are huge. They're best friends. And Earl thought up this Alaskan adventure to help Larry move past the grief he's feeing after his wife of 56 years died. She's been gone five months, Larry says. And it's time to live again. Or else he'll die.

So he and Earl fueled up the motorhome and drove north, to where we sit tonight. A circle of tentative friends, bridging a cultural divide with a slew of s'mores made with fixings so old, Larry's wife must have bought them a year before she passed.

The evening begins slowly. Almost proper and shy. We politely introduce ourselves and dip into esoteric conversations. About weather. Or coffee. Then someone loads marshmallows on a stick and chases our inhibitions away.

Allen's marshmallow is the first to catch fire and he waves it frantically. Plop! It falls in the dust. We laugh.
The other Alan kneels in front of the flames to produce a perfectly tanned specimen. We oohh and ahhh.

And then we laugh again, because the Germans and Swiss find s'mores addicting, but difficult to eat. Their faces and fingers get sticky. The graham crackers split and crumble. (We tell them it's a skill Americans learn in childhood.) The Hawaiian, a health-food aficionado, startles his wife by inhaling treat after treat. She finally cuts him off.

We're all laughing like kids, riding a fantastic sugar high. We swap tales of our Alaskan adventures, inquire about homelands, careers, kids. We continue to munch on the magical ancient s'mores and pick at an eclectic smorgasbord of donated oranges, a plate of peanuts, a bag of pretzels and a pot of very strong coffee brewed over the fire. We check itineraries, to see if we can meet up again, somewhere down the road.

I notice Larry's been quiet. And now he's standing, folding up his chair.

"Hey, Larry," I yell over. "Are you leaving?"

It's past his bedtime, he says. Time to yank out his hearing aids and hit the hay.

So over the din of conversations and laughter, I thank him for the party.

He smiles. And walks off. Leaving behind a legacy of friendship modeled by crumbly old chocolate, drying-out marshmallows, aging graham crackers. And, I bet, a wife's enduring love.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Catching The Train in Nenana

I stand in knee-high weeds, hoisting my camera chest high. Waiting. Waiting. And I'm excited.

Because any minute, the famous Alaska Railroad chugs through town and I want its picture. Not because it's THE Alaska Railroad. But because Glenys says it's THE thing to do in town. To watch the 6 p.m. train roll through, then watch it leave, over the historic bridge.

Sounds so lame. Sounds so small town. Sounds so yesterday. But I have to do it. Because Glenys says so.

Glenys works in Nenana, AK's visitor's center, a small log cabin with grass, flowers and weeds growing from its thatched roof. I walk in around 3 p.m. because we plan to do laundry in town then head on to Denali National Park. And I need to locate a laundromat. So we stop at the visitor's center. Where Glenys works.

She sees me, smiles and nods a little as she ushers two other people out, handing them a map and her well wishes. She then walks over to me, well, she sort of wafts over, like an angel on a cloud. Unimposing. Sweet. Gentle. She's a minute of a woman, without enough fat to keep her warm during a heat wave. She wears her age in her eyes. They're blue and rheumy. So I'm not sure if it's the water or her excitement that makes them sparkle and shine when she talks about Nenana.

She loves this town of 400. And she sure hopes we'll stay and explore, visit the church, the historic bridge. Oh, and we MSUT go down to the General Store. It's like time stood still in there, she says, quietly, matter-of-factly. And, she says, then tilts her head, grinning, twinkling, town folks like to go down at 6 p.m. and watch the train come through. And wave at the tourists.

It's not a big thing, she says, "But it doesn't take much to entertain us."

She then directs me to the town's only RV park because the laundry facilities are clean and, she tilts her head again, "DO plan to spend the night," adding, "Judy and Larry are such nice people."

Judy and Larry own the RV park.

She hands me a map of the town and I know, for sure, that after I do my laundry, I'm heading down to the tracks. To watch for the train. It's like telling me the best place in town to eat, the place where the locals hang out. It's what I want to do to feel like a local. Lame or not.

So that's why I'm standing here. With my camera poised. My motorhome parked -- for the night, or three -- in the RV park because, just like Glenys said, Judy and Larry are fine people. And the park is squeaky clean.

Oh listen! I hear the train whistle. Wonderful. My excitement percolates.

And here it is! Rounding the bend. The Alaska Railroad. It's clinging and clanging, rattling the rails. Piercing the air with its forlorn whistle.

Now it's rushing past me. Car after car. And look! People are waving from inside the train at me. They think I live here!

So I wave back. Pretend I'm a local. Doing what the locals do. And, MAN! I'm loving this.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

God Made Girlfriends

Allen and I are sitting at McDonald's in Fairbanks (see the rainbow in the fuzzy picture?), where everything on the $1 menu cost $1.50. I think about my girlfriend Lin, and how I want to giggle with her about this extra 50-cent charge.

But we order our McDoubles and cheeseburgers anyway. And as we nibble away, I notice three women sitting next to us engaged in animated conversation. All three wear their advanced years without notice. One cherubic, one aristocratic, and one a diamond-and-fur-coat model.

They laugh in unison, lean forward to share their tales. They're so engrossed in each other, they nearly forget their meals. And they laugh again.

Girlfriends. They must be girlfriends. Longtime friends. Church? Work? I try to imagine where they met. I visualize them young together, raising their kids, perhaps learning together how to survive the frigid Fairbanks winters, where it can get to 50 below zero day after day. Maybe they shop together.

I dip a french fry in catsup and I miss my girlfriends. Betty, Lin, Kathy, Susan, Karen, Jill, Teresa, Judy, Michelle, Linda, Lynda, Leah, Kelly, Sue, and my dear Celeste, and so many more ... My girlfriends mean the world to me because I find them refreshing, resilient. Engaging, interesting. Exciting. Humorous. Pertinent.

The three girlfriends next to me turns serious, and I hear snippets of conversations about health problems. Sisters? Could they be family, getting together for lunch while visiting a sick family member in the hospital?

Well, we're done with our lunch and it's time to go. Time for me to let go of these women. But I can't. I turn around. Say "excuse me." They stare at me. Inquisitively.

And then I say something stupid, like "Are you three girlfriends, because I think you are and I miss my girlfriends."

They laugh and their eyes twinkle as they acknowledge my supposition as truth, then invite me to be their girlfriend, too. Makes me smile.

So then I discover how they met. Not at a garden party. Skating rink or day care. Nope. They met 10 years ago on a cruise to Antarctica and have been close traveling buddies ever since. This month, they're exploring Alaska. Together.

Girlfriends. Ain't they grand.

"I CAN See Russia From My House"

We're walking through the Visitor's Center in Fairbanks  (that's Otto in the picture, parked at the visitor's Center) and we see people going into an auditorium. Then coming out. Going in. Coming out.

So, we check it out, and find three men, all native people age 60-plus, scurrying about on stage, packing up fiddles, keyboards and speakers, cleaning up from an afternoon of entertainment.

One of the three sees us and does one of those arm waves. "Come on in! We just finished rehearsing, but you are welcome to come in, sit down."  So we sit, in comfy upholstered movie-house chairs.

The room doubles as a movie theater and stage-show venue. The real show, he says, begins Monday, with a week-long salute to native cultures in Alaska. He's a musician.

But his first love is storytelling.

This older native Alaskan is a storyteller, and even though his audience is just us two, he entertains as he packs up with sagas about his life in the military in South Carolina and Kentucky (he jokes about how awful the chicken is at Kentucky Fried Chicken, but how wonderful it is in South Carolina.)

And then he vindicates Sarah Palin.

Now, I'm no Palin fan, so I'm not looking for ways to clear her name.  And in fact, most of the people I talk to here in her state pepper their opinions with words like pit bull, mean and bullish. They roll their eyes. Call her an embarrassment.

So I was taken aback when this man, this native Alaskan, vindicates her. Without naming her, or even intending, he vindicates her.

He does it when he talks about growing up with Russia in his back yard. He say that during the Cold War, he and his hunting buddies used to see Russian submarines in the waters off the Alaska coast, and they'd shoot at the hulls.

I laugh, and say something about his story being a David-and-Goliath tale. 

He doesn't laugh back.

Instead, he continues to story tell, and says the shooting scared the submarines away, because who wants a hole in their submarine?

He's serious. So I get serious, and ask the big question: Can you really see Russia from your house.

With binoculars, he nods. Russia is only two miles away from his village. He can see them; they can see him. With binoculars.

The famous Sarah quote that Tina Fey parodied ("I can see Russia from my house") actually  went like this: "They're our next-door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska." 

So according to this native Alaskan, Sarah's right. You can see Russian from Alaskan land. His land.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Heading to the Arctic Circle

Allen is outside the motorhome taking pictures alongside the Dalton Highway, the Haul Road, the one made famous by The Discovery Channel because of how dangerous it is. Because it's nearly 500 miles of unpaved, winding, narrow road, full of sharp, tire-flattening gravel, vertical drop-offs and concrete-like mud. Manic 18-wheelers possess this road because they service the prize at the end: Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean.

Our goal is less lofty. We want to stand on the Arctic Circle (about 115 miles in), then turn around and head back to Fairbanks and pavement.

Despite the danger, we find this dramatic road beautiful. That's why Allen braves the mosquitoes to take pictures. Mile after mile, turn after turn, we see panoramic vistas of endless mountain chains; clouds so low, we look down on them; and here and there we see the sun dance on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It snakes aboveground through the countryside, secretive in places, commanding in others.

We're loving this daring adventure. Five miles in. Seven. Then 10 miles in on our 115-mile journey, the road narrows. The shoulders drop off into nothing. At one point, the soft gravel grabs our right front tire and pulls us in, like a goblin hungry for rubber. We wrestle free, shake off the mounting fear, and travel on, avoiding the shoulder, which, obviously, dissolves under the weight of our motorhome.

Eleven miles. Twelve. Maybe 20. We tire, because of the doddering pace. Because of the mud slapping our sides. Of the spitting gravel and ominous drop-offs. And gremlins lurking in soft shoulders.

And we're hungry. The dogs have to eat, too, and go for a walk. So we stop in a turnout, offside of the road. And so do all the mosquitoes of Mudville. Allen runs the dogs out into the swarm, then back in. Safe.

As we eat, two 18-wheelers splatter past. And we notice they zoom straight up the middle of that unforvgiving nightmare of a road. No room for us to stay safe. We'd have been pushed to the side, onto that shoulder. Goners. Muddy, gravel encrusted goners.

So as we continue to eat, we look toward the hills up ahead, and consider our goal, the Arctic Circle that lies just on the other side. And decide to wave. It's OK. We wave at the mountains that can see the Arctic Circle on the other side. Good enough for us.

We finish our meal, then head back toward Fairbanks. And on the way, we see an amazing sunset (well, the sun never really sets here; it just rests on the horizon), the end of a rainbow (well, they do say there's gold in these hills), and we get to use our mosquito nets (over our heads) to walk the dogs again.

And we get to stay safe, out of the way of those 18-wheel road hogs, who are paid well to drive this dangerous road.

Fashion Sense Has No Age

She's so cute.

A little girl, maybe 5, stands in front of me just inside the Aurora Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. We're getting ready to see the artwork of Steve and Heather Brice, world-champion ice sculptors, and this little girl begins making a scene.

She's wearing a thin sweater and it's 20 degrees in here. So her mom wants her to wear a parka (provided by the museum) to keep warm. Mom pulls a parka off the rack and drapes it over her daughter's shoulders. Who whines: "It's too big."

To prove her point, the little girl deflates, making herself even smaller and making sure the parka slides off onto the floor. I want to laugh, but I can't, because mom's not happy. And the tour guide's not happy. And others are getting antsy because we can't go into the main part of the museum until we are all suited up. And this little 5-year-old's a wedge in the works.

I inject myself into her world.

"Hey, I found a smaller parka!" I say, enthusiastically, to the little girl, right into her eyes, and I ignore her mom. "Want to try this one on?" To my relief, it works. She grins and nods her head.

I drape the parka (which is really the same size as the one her mom just tried) over her shoulders and the little girl obliges by puffing up a bit. I then take the arms and tie them in front of her (with Mom's help), chatting all the time about how much fun it must be to be inside a cocoon, just like a butterfly.

Now she's happy, and everyone's happy because we get to go in. And what we find inside is a darkened word of ice that titillates my senses with blue and pink and green lights shining through poles, bowls, horses and trees, all carved out of tons of solid ice blocks.

Even the floor is ice (stay on the carpet or you'll end up on your butt.) A nightclub bar -- carved out of ice -- offers martinis in carved-ice goblets for $15 to patrons who sit on ice stools padded with caribou skins. I pass and head for the three hotel rooms in the rear. They cost $600 a night (wow) and feature icy walls, floor and carved-ice beds. Caribou skins pad the bed, just like the bar stools.

After exploring all three rooms, I think about my little girl and wonder if she's having fun. So I stand near those rooms and survey the surreal landscape, looking for her. About 50 tourists mill about in the subdued lighting, taking pictures, sipping drinks, talking in hushed tones. As if we're in church.

And those who wear the parkas look like clones. Who's who?

But soon I see my little 5-year-old, who stands apart from the parka-ed crowd because she's so small; she looks like a walking parka. I see her tottering about, staring at the spectacular art, not shivering a bit. Smiling. Mission accomplished. Even her mom is smiling now. Enjoying this icy word of the Aurora Ie Museum.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What About Bob?

Bob's a muskox (right) here at the University of Alaska's LARS (The Large Animal Research Station) at Fairbanks.

And he just head-butted his buddy. WHAM! Because the two of them want to eat the same pile of grain. So they whack each others heads. Well, really horns. They stand 10 or so feet apart, issue guttural snorts, race toward each other and WHAM, head-butt (an AWFUL sound, like the crack of a dozen baseball bats, only deeper, more resonant).

After the smash up, Bob wobbles over to the fence and stares at me, looking sort of woozy. He tilts his hairy ol' head sideways, looks at me, and bobbles, like his brains got scrambled.

I wonder, will he die? His eyes begin to glaze.

And then I hear the WHAM again. Only this time, it's not Bob (he's recovered and gone back to eating). This time,  another 800-pound muskox refuses to share. And instead of just saying no, he gets violent.

Just like Bob. Who's at it again. A bigger brute ambles near Bob's grain and ROAR! Bob deafens me with a sound I've never heard, a mix of vocalizations -- maybe  giraffe, lion and elephant. (Our guide later tells us she thinks Spielberg used that sound for a dinosaur in "Jurassic Park.")

Bob's bluster works. The other guy tottles off (they walk slowly), and Bob looks back at me. His head bobbing and tilting.

All this happens while we wait for our guide to begin our 2 p.m. tour. She tells us to wait by the pasture, where Bob and the other seven food hogs line up by the fence because it's treat time. Each day they get fortified grain to supplement their grazing. To keep them healthy. So scientists from all over the world can study them.

It's this treat these boys bullishly protect.

And whenever Bob's involved, he wins. He roars, snorts and head-butts. And he comes over to me and gives me that Jack Sparrow woozy look, with his head bobbing and weaving. Like he's on his way out. Fast.

So when our tour begins, I ask, "What about Bob?"

Well, the tour guide says, Bob's unusual. Because while he's the smallest muskox out there, he's the meanest, the Alpha. And all that bobble-head stuff?

He's not hurting, he's bragging. To me. He's hitting on me the muskox way, by showing his power, his strength, his tough-guy status.

Well, I'm impressed.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Just Wanted To Buy A Pie

I want to buy a pie for Allen. As a surprise. From this tuoristy place called Beautiful Downtown Chicken.

There really is no downtown in this town of 23 summer residents; 6 in the winter. So it's all for show; for the tourists who make it here, who drive very long ways from either Yukon or interior Alaska, in cars, motorhomes or on tour buses. 

I read all about this intentionally rustic little place in "The MilePost,"  a guidebook to Western Canada and Alaska. On page 315 is a picture of Susan Wiren, "a pioneering-style woman,"  Beautiful Downtown Chicken's  owner. She's smiling out at me, standing in front of a motherlode of fabulous looking pies, holding one up, waiting to hand it over to me. Now. Oh yum.

So when we get to Chicken, we find a row of three businesses, all wooden, all looking like a set out of  "Gunsmoke." We pull up (in the mud). Park. I go in.

And WHAM! I'm hit with acrid, rancid smoke. Shudder. Through the haze, I see a long wooden counter. And behind it, next to the left wall, a double utility sink holds a pile of steaming red potatoes two feet deep and three feet long. Two institutional-size soup pots sit side-by-side on a stove against the back wall. Their lids dance to the rhythm of the boiling food inside.

To my right is my prize: Pies. Lots of them Maybe a dozen. Perhaps 15. The air's acridity dissipates under the lure of those pies: blueberry, apple, apples with cranberry. Oh, yum.

Then, standing in front of me, smiling, is a young 20-something guy, wearing an apron and carrying a mighty big shovel of a spoon. 

I'm about to ask about those pies when SHE glides in behind him. It's her. The Susan Wiren from the pie picture. She then proceeds to chew the apronned guy out -- I'm standing right there -- about something he's left on the floor. She whines about how she might fall, and hurt herself because of his carelessness and she's getting old, so she doesn't heal like she used to.

I barely note this insensitivity because I'm starstruck: She makes these pies.

She walks out, fast, leaving this beaten-down guy to wait on me. "How much are the pies?" I ask. $4 a piece, he says. "How much for the whole pie?"

The question whirls Susan back into the room.

"I can't discount the pies," she says.

"Oh, I'm not asking for a discount," I reply. "What's the price of a whole pie?"

This tips her off. She chews ME out for wanting to buy a whole pie. (But in that picture, she wants to GIVE me that pie.)

So how come I can't buy a pie? Because, she insists,  she CAN'T discount the pie.  My head swirls.

"Lady," I say slowly, and grab hold of her eyes with mine. "Listen to me. I don't want a discount."

"Well, most people do," is her retort.

"I just want a pie. I'll pay by the piece...  Now, I can do the math, or you can." I note the pies are cut into six pieces ... "So it'd be $24,"  adding quickly, "And no discount."

Nope. She won't sell me a pie. Because, she says, she's cooking for a busload of 90 people (a Grayline tour) who will be here at 4 (it's now 9 a.m.) and every one of them needs a piece of pie.

I guess I understand.

So I buy a slice, not a whole piece. And get a story to tell.

Crossing the Yukon

We're looking for the ferry out of Dawson City. So I tell Allen to travel north on Front Street, which follows the Yukon, a river that promised extraordinary riches to so many people so long ago.

We found none of those riches in Dawson (our own fault) so it's time to go to Alaska. Maybe our fortune is there.
But first, we need to cross the Yukon, on a small, free ferry.

After driving just a few more blocks north, we find the dirt ramp leading to our escape. Two cars idle in the line next to us. We're the sole RV. So it's just the three of us, waiting to cross. On this very small ferry.

Small, yes, but we see it's sturdy enough to tote a double oil tanker (filled with another of today's extraordinary riches) from the other side. We watch it disembark. Then see the ferry rises a good two feet when relieved of the weight. A good sign. A strong boat.

Our turn. The two men and one woman in hard-hats and rain gear direct the three of us on, waving their hands and signs to inch us forward, as close together as possible, the two cars first, then us.

A man in the first car hops out to take pictures. What a great idea! So I follow suit. As soon as one foot touches the deck, the woman waves me back in. She's shaking her head furiously, pointing to a sign, waving her sign. The sign, I see, says I'm to stay in my vehicle. Oops. So I stay inside.

The Yukon's current tugs us sideways as we cross. I understand why she wants us all seated. It's a raging river. And it takes 15 minutes to go from one side of the river to the other because the powerful current wants to wash us away.
But, we reach land, safely, and roll off in West Dawson City and head up the hill to begin our journey on the Top of the World Highway, a 175-mile narrow, paved/gravel/dirt road that cuts across the mountaintops from Yukon into Alaska.

But we stop first, so I can get a few pictures of that ferry.

As I snap, I see the troublemaker trotting down to see me. He's the man whose lead I followed on the boat and got chastised.

"I've come to apologize," he says, in a lovely, cadenced British accent. "Because had it not been for me, you would not have been scolded so back on the boat." And then, he proceeds to make plans to email me the pictures he took of our motorhome on the ferry.

There's more.

We meet again, this British man, Keith, his wife, Janet, near the end of the Top of the World Highway, in a town called Chicken, Alaska, where we spend the evening chatting about the monarchy, the world, kids and travel. We become fast friends.

Our evening together sparkles, like flakes of gold in a miner's pan. So just as I though, we strike it rich in Alaska.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Exploring Dawson City

Dawson City is a bust.

Sometimes, not often, but just sometimes I'm unimpressed with a place we visit. And I'm unimpressed with Dawson City, Yukon. Even though it's on the National Historic Places list.

We visit the government-sponsored Visitors Center and they ply us with brochures and suggestions about government-sponsored things we can do in town. Everything costs. $6 to do that. $7 to do that. Do three, and the price falls to just $16.

What's with the grab for my wallet?

We decide to ignore the government's gold digging and set out on foot to explore the small, dusty town on our own. We pass numerous decrepit buildings, most worn out by the region's nasty winters and apparent financial decay. We explored the outside of some government-restored properties -- the hotel, bank, surveyors and brothels, all vintage from the Klondike Rush. We read memorial plaques about how this place swarmed with prospectors after 1896, with the discovery of gold. The Great Stampede.  The place rolled in gold dusted people for a few years, then, by 1905, lost its glitter for the little guy when the big guys brought in massive dredges to do the work.

Today's extraordinary riches are us, the tourists, who intentionally make a long wilderness journey into the Yukon to see this city, where the race for riches all began.

We buy into a $40-a-night campground and plan to leave in the morning. Afterall, what else is there do to? We saw the dust and the decay. After we sleep, it's time to go.

In the morning, as I walk the dogs, I chat with our neighbors who, from the looks of things, are preparing to leave, too.

"Heading out?" I say. The conversation that follow floors me.

"Oh, no!" she replies. Because THERE'S SO MUCH TO DO!

She and her husband plan to send the day out at a government-sponsored park, panning for gold, watching for wildlife, and resting up. Yesterday, they took a few of the government's WONDERFUL, INFORMATIVE, FUN tours and then, last night, partied with the dance-hall girls and the folks from The Discovery Channel's new show on mining for gold in Dawson City. They partied in the original, restored dance hall, where all those miners o long ago sought solace from the hardness of life here.

They plan to stay a few more days, to visit a few more parks. Because it's all so much fun. So wonderful. They struck it rich in Dawson City. They bought into the government-sponsored stuff I naively cold-shouldered. In Dawson City they found gold.

And I, to save a dollar, struck out.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Heading Into The Dark

We're driving around Whitehorse, not as tourists, but as consumers, looking for a good place to buy material to make blackout shades for our bedroom.

I want them because the sweet kiss of the sun in the morning awakens me. And it's generally a cheerful awakening, a time for just me and the sun to reacquaint ourselves, for a few minutes before the start of the day.

But here in the land of the Midnight Sun, the sun gets up way too early to kiss me. Instead, it smacks me upside the head at 3 a.m.and screeches GET UUUPPPP! In a panic. Unkindly. Manically. What a grouch!

And, our dogs function poorly. Usually, they hop right up in the morning, excited to start their day, to go outside, to have breakfast, then to jump back in bed with Allen. And snuggle down for a nap.

Now, when I get up, they don't even raise their heads. They each open one eye, one glazed eye, and stare at me, as if to say, "You've got to be kidding." So I'm guessing their sleep pattern's disrupted, too, without the dark (well, with only three hours of it.)

So I ask around for a cure, and I'm told two things: Just get used to it. Or make dark. I chose dark. To make it, I need to fashion blackout curtains.

I visit Walmart's craft department. Nothing usable there. The precut fabric measures two inches too short.

Next stop, the quilt shop. (I find it in my visitor's guide.) The four smiling (and short) elderly ladies inside wear smock aprons and toddle around, constantly. Endless motion. They pick up swatches of their fabric and hold them up to the light, then assure me it just won't do. It's too thin. (They're the ones who told me to "just get used to it.") I tell them I want dark. They send me across town to a tailor/seamstress shop.

So now I'm at that shop, the Golden Thimble, where two young Asian men wait on me. Together, we find the perfect fabric (designed for blackout curtains ... even though it is white.) And I hand them the dimensions I need.
In inches. They can't covert to inches. I can't convert to metric. We're at an impasse. But wait! We notice their tape measure does both, so they measure in inches and cut, then measure again, and cut. And we discover, the material is TWO INCHES SHORT! Too inches short. Like Walmart. Only more expensive ($16 a meter; Walmart is $9). But I'm into it now. I can't back out.

So the two young men converse rapidly in their native tongue (Chinese maybe?). I can tell they disagree on how to right this wrong. Because they punctuate their conversation with scissors clacking and tape measures flying.

The front door clangs open and I see who must be Mom and Dad walk in to what must be a family business. Mom smiles broadly at me, then turns and frowns at her sons, instantly assessing the situation. She calls her boys over (in Chinese?) and gently and peacefully teaches them how to cut a straight line in blackout material.

There. Done.

Mom disappears and the boys finish the sale.

So I give the kids $2 each as a tip. Because Mom yelled at them. Because I want them to know i really appreciate their time and trouble. Even though I think, now I'm not sure, but I think the shade is still two inches too short.