Sunday, July 31, 2011

Alaska Overwhelms

Other visitors to Alaska had told me about the breadth of space I would find here, but I was not prepared for the vast magnitude of the mountains, the greenery, the glaciers, and the over-arching sky.  We based ourselves in Girdwood, AK, about 40 miles southeast of Anchorage, for our introduction to Alaska and it served us quite nicely.  We saw animals we planned to see and animals we did not plan to see, and even experienced a 5.3 magnitude earthquake!

The Winner Creek hike begins right off the Alyeska Resort property where we were staying.  It is a 5-mile hike through the woods surrounded by mountain walls, fairly frequent waterfalls, and skies punctuated by pointed glaciers.  Easy to navigate and negotiate, the hike's only challenge was the hand tram across a gorge.  It's called a hand tram because that's how you power yourself across -- hand over hand on a basic rope.  Take a look - it was tons of fun.

Gilly, the moose calf
Back on the ground, we visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a non-profit center dedicated tot he rescue and preservation of wild animals.  We took a "behind the scenes" tour which allowed us to feed moose calves, and pet Snickers, the porcupine, Hershey, the reindeer, and Julie, the Sitka deer. There were huge deer and elk to see, including Roosevelt Elk, named for T.R.'s preferred prey!  Best of all, though, was observing black, brown, and Kodiak bears in a natural, albeit safely confined area.  The Kodiak bears were being trained while we were there, and the trainer was sitting as close to them as I sit with our doggy, and the whole routine did not actually look so different!

The following day began with a bear spotting right on the road.  On our way to Crow Pass Trail, we came around the corner (in our car, thankfully!) to what we thought was a puppy off its leash with a red collar.  But this was no puppy, and there was no leash; it was a brown bear cub evidently tagged with a red marker.  He heard our car as we saw him and scurried away as quickly as he appeared.  We drove ahead only half hoping to see mother and siblings!  No more bears on that day!
The Crow Pass hike, itself, was thrilling and quite challenging.  It was majestic in its scope, uphill all the way, and went into a remote valley with spectacular waterfalls as our reward. We didn't quite make it to the Pass but stopped after 2 steep miles to make a much easier and quicker trek down!

I would like to write about accommodations and dining, both spectacular in Girdwood, but time is limited and wi-fi is weak.  We are now in Homer, about to embark on our overnight kayaking trip in Kachemak Bay. A bright, clear, sunny day greets us. We are in a whole different environment and climate that welcomes quite a different population from Girdwood, and I look forward to sharing about that in another post.  I will leave you with a most exciting sight from our drive along the Kenai River en route to Homer.  As Clay said, this is the way we like our bear sightings -- from the other side of the river.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Seattle's Best - Family and Friends

The first leg of our Alaskan adventure was to spend the weekend in Seattle, a place we had both visited many times. What brought us here? 'Not Pike Place Market (right near our hotel, Inn at Harbor Steps, which I have reviewed on TripAdvisor here), not Mt. Rainier (easily visible), and not the weather (quite perfect, actually!). We came for the love of old friends and cherished family. We got the locals' tour of The Rainier Valley from my oldest friend in the world, Susan Davis, who is the Executive Director of the Rainier Chamber Foundation. It's a great area, described by Susan as including the most diverse zip code in the country, and that was evident in the variety of shops and patrons. We were joined by Susan's husband and son, had a spectacular Thai lunch, and they did a top notch job of showing off their neighborhood with well-deserved pride. Later that day we had a home-cooked meal, salmon and veggies picked straight from Bruce's lovingly tended garden, all grilled to perfection by Chef Bruce. YUMMY!

Emi - Could she be any cuter?!
Susan and I have known each other since we were teenagers, and she celebrated with me in Madrid a long while ago when my first niece, Sarah, was born far off in Syracuse, New York. Today Sarah lives -- where else -- in Seattle, with her husband, Isaac, and the next generation of our family, the precious and adorable Emi. My feelings for Emi remind me of my feelings for each of my nieces and nephew at the sweet age of 2 and 1/2 -- marvel, wonder, and gushing love. Clay and I enjoyed tickling Emi, playing fishies on the iPhone with Emi, and reading to Emi at Sarah and Isaac's West Seattle home. We took an easy bus ride there and a fun water taxi back to our hotel. Blue skies, bright sunshine, and friendly folks greeted us wherever we went. We brought the day to perfection when we had dinner again with Susan and Bruce, this time at Seattle's own Tom Douglas's Dahlia Lounge, a beautifully appointed restaurant with delicious food, and a chance for some deeper conversation and reminiscence.

Susan and Bruce
The next generations
I came to Seattle with a handful of goals, the most practical of which was to adjust to the time and temperature change from brutally hot NYC. 'Done. The higher goal was to enjoy the company of my beloved friends and family on their home turf. This goal was more than met, and my cup runneth over. This was a time when travel brought me closer to home!

On to Alaska but for a delay at Sea-Tac Airport -- a sick crew member has grounded us until they can find a replacement, so our long-awaited flight to Anchorage will just have to wait a little longer!  Advice to self:  be here now.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pure Americana

A summer Saturday in New England - what could show more Yankee Americana than the annual Pickin' 'n Fiddlin' Contest in Roxbury, Connecticut?  On wide-open Hurlburt Field, we enjoyed music of fiddles, mandolins, acoustic guitars, and more played by musicians ranging in age from 8 years old to about 80 years old!  At times, the people-watching even beat out the music, as the audience included families of all ages, folks from near and far, and even some celebrities that hide out in this haven they can happily call home.  There were vendors, including Goatboy Soaps, who brought along their very own goat in case we were skeptical of the soap's origins.
"Kid", no kidding!
The event supports the The Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department, and is planned each year by Billy Steers, a member of that department, who also designed the posters and the T-shirts!  Good eats were available from local organizations like Roxbury Market, the Women's Auxiliary unit of the Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department, among others. We enjoyed hamburgers, hot dogs, pulled pork sandwiches, ice cream, and even cotton candy.  All in all, a day in the park -- overflowing with good times and warm feelings.

Home for the evening - back to the big city to enjoy our urban version of pure Americana, pizza and wine on our roof, with memories of pickin' 'n fiddlin' drowning out the car horns and metropolitan commotion.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Is it a Camp or a Lodge?

The Adirondack State Park is as large as the state of Massachusetts, and offers a great variety of options for lodging.  Many of those are called "camps" going back to the late 19th century when wealthy New Yorkers traveled to the mountains for a vacation in a rustic setting.  Times have not changed much, though this is a quieter, less touristed vacation spot than the more common destinations of many New Yorkers. By standards both present and past, some "camps" border on elegant, and some are more true to my definition of that word - musty cabins and campsites for families of all sizes.  The Hedges, in Blue Mountain Lake, NY is comfortably beyond the middle -- just the right mix of mountain life with cozy and modern amenities.  It is very nicely appointed, but you will not find plush towels, fancy soaps, or multi-ply toilet paper.  You will find clean and cozy accommodations with a friendly and unobtrusive staff there to meet your minimal needs.  Lodge or camp: their website does not do the place justice.

The setting of The Hedges is magnificent, right on Blue Mountain Lake with its wondrous varieties of color, and sunshine glinting off the water in the late afternoon.  The property has a host of cabins, two lodges, a dining room, and swimming and boating docks. The boating dock is equipped with canoes and kayaks just waiting to be used (for no fee!), and visitors can spend as long as they like exploring the area with paddles in hand. The entire attitude at The Hedges is "do as you please" and that may mean parking yourself in a rocking chair and reading for hours, hiking the extensive trails in the area, playing bingo or making ice cream, or boating and swimming.  There are no camp counselors or announcements to be heard, instead there is a hushed tone and slow pace throughout the resort.  Our favorite hours were spent on lounge chairs at the end of a dock, sipping wine while the lake lapped inches away.

The accommodations are comfortable, handsome, and satisfying. Our room was ample and attractive, with wood details and paneling.  Common rooms have fireplaces along with chess, checkers, board games, and puzzles. Breakfast and dinner are served in a big-enough dining room and are included in your stay, and we found both to be generous and delicious.  Shorts and t-shirts were the common wardrobe at meals.  A picnic lunch can be purchased and it, too, is healthful and yummy, served appealingly in a picnic basket with cloth napkins. You are given a flashlight when you check in because it's quiet and still after dark, though there is a campfire and s'mores if you are out watching the stars and find yourself still hungry!
Stone Lodge at The Hedges
So while the building we stayed in was called Stone Lodge and catered to adults only, The Hedges offered a camp-like feel with lodge-like amenities.  A happy combination for our peaceful few days in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

There were three productive and beautiful days that I spent with NYSAIS colleagues at the Think Tank 2011 (#nysaistt11), in Rensselaerville, New York, imagining, exploring, and creating better ways for teachers to learn and collaborate in the interest of their students. We confirmed the creation of The Council for Professional Learning and Collaboration (CPLC), established and promoted a community space for teachers at NYSAIS schools to experience and continue their professional development, and we opened up a Twitter feed for NYSAIS: Nysaisnow.  It was a stirring, motivating, and energizing think tank, and worth every minute.  'Thinking big thoughts, seeing forests filled with possibilities, and trying to see the trees to keep sight on what matters.  Now on to vacation!

The Adirondack hike was described as "fairly easy", though "steep at the end" with "great views for small effort."  Sounds terrific, right?  Every step, however, had to be measured, most of them uphill over exposed tree roots, mud puddles, rocks and branches.  I watched my every obstacle, with head down more than up, so missed out on the expanse around me. It was a great mental challenge and, like all mental challenges, quite tiring. Would there be a payoff, as promised?

After an hour, I cried "uncle", and Clay said he would sprint ahead to see how much was left and whether that "great view" would really be worth it. We agreed to a five minute window for search, then allowing for 5 minutes for Clay to return to me. While he explored, I sat still, imagined bears behind trees, and I started to whistle a happy tune.  At almost precisely the 5 minute mark, I heard Clay groan satisfyingly and I knew he had found the peak.  He called down to me that it was definitely worth the last trek, and we began our rendezvous with me heading up and him heading down.  We joined up, went the last tenth of a mile together;  a rocky uphill scramble through narrow passageways, more like a climb than a hike.  It was fun and, because I trust Clay and his satisfying groans, very promising. Once at the top, there was the open face of Castle Rock with an expansive view of Blue Mountain Lake, Indian Lake, and Eagle Lake surrounded by green mountains the likes of which only late June and early July can provide!  There was the forest, with its trees, lakes, and sky.  Everything in its time, its place.