Monday, June 11, 2018

MOUNTAINS, GRIZZLIES AND MAGIC, the "Real Alaska" Part 2, Guest Post by Nora Gould

Fireweed in bloom on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

My friend Nora and her husband Frank went on a memorable trip to Alaska in August, 1996. Nora recalled the trip in a recent essay she wrote for Kendalights, a literary magazine published by the retirement community where she lives in Lyme, New Hampshire. She has graciously given me permission to reprint it for readers of The Intrepid Tourist. Nora and Frank's trip brought back memories of a similar trip to Alaska that Art and I took in 2002. Unfortunately, the photos of Nora's trip were lost when her computer crashed. I have used our photos as a substitute to illustrate her report.
Last week was Part 1. Here is part 2:
The next morning Frank rents a car and assures me that the trip will only get better.
“A lot better if it is to compete with North Face Lodge,” I say.
We drive to Seward. (The town is named for Secretary of State William H. Seward. At the time of Alaska’s purchase from the Russians in 1867, it was called “Seward’s Folly.” It cost 7.2 million dollars.) Seward is only slightly bigger than Lyme, New Hampshire. Seward is a gray town, and it appears that every other commercial building houses an Evangelical church. It is on the Kenai Peninsula on the Gulf of Alaska. We are there because Frank has never met a fjord he didn’t like. Early the next morning we board a small ship to take us to see the fjords. The ship has barely left port before we are seriously rocking and rolling. Within an hour Frank and I are the only people on the ship who are not sick. The captain announces that we are in 12-foot seas and are heading back to Seward. On our return, we see a cruise ship anchored in the harbor towering over the town. We leave Seward for Homer that afternoon.
Homer harbor
Homer is another seaport town but a little livelier than Seward. On arrival we are guided to an incoming boat. Michael McBride, owner of Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, has come personally to take us to his lodge. During the 30-minute trip Michael says, “There are twelve guests and ten naturalists at the lodge. We can arrange just about anything that you want to see or do.”
Bird Island on way to Kachemak Bay
Mike and Frank compare their experiences in the Service. Mike was a career Air Force officer. He retired and opened the lodge. Once again, we are fed a wonderful meal upon arrival, then shown to our cabin located above China Poot Bay and looking down on amazing scenery. Soon we are sleeping soundly.
Halibut Cove in Kachemak Bay
It is hard to describe the pure magic of Kachemak. The tidal pools, the hikes, the sea otters, the bird islands, and the friendly, knowledgeable staff all combine to make this experience unique. Each day we choose an activity and have one-on-one service.
Sea Otter
I spend a morning on a motorboat looking for and finding sea otters. Another day we fish for salmon. We are not alone—the bears, eagles, young eaglets, and flies are feeding on dying salmon.
Bald Eagles are common in Alaska
The richness of nature at Kachemak and the way the McBrides are preserving the wilderness is inspiring.
Before we leave, Frank decides that he would like Mike to fly him up to the lake owned by the lodge. He and Mike will camp out and then fish the lake in the morning. I curl up with an enjoyable book after going to the tidal pool to photograph starfish the size of dinner plates.
View of Kachemak Bay
The next day we fly home filled with memories of Alaska. Whether it is the “real Alaska” is open to question. However, what we experienced was a wonderful portion of it.

Monday, June 4, 2018

MOUNTAINS, GRIZZLIES AND MAGIC, the "Real Alaska" Part 1, Guest Post by Nora Gould

Denali National Park, Alaska
My friend Nora and her husband Frank went on a memorable trip to Alaska in August, 1996. Nora recalled the trip in a recent essay she wrote for Kendalights, a literary magazine published by the retirement community where she lives in New Hampshire. She has graciously given me permission to reprint it for readers of The Intrepid Tourist. Nora and Frank's trip brought back memories of a similar trip to Alaska that Art and I took in 2002. Unfortunately, the photos of Nora's trip were lost when her computer crashed. I have used a few of our photos as a substitute to illustrate her report.
My husband Frank loves to travel and spends a lot of time designing the perfect trips for us. In 1996 both of us were still working, Frank as an orthodontist, I as a school principal. We had arranged for a two-week vacation as Frank planned our trip to Alaska.
On August 1st, Frank suggested that I pack warm clothes and hiking boots. “Won’t I need a few dresses for dinner on the boat?” I asked. “No, no boat. I’ve designed a different trip. We’re going to see the real Alaska,” he said.
I always thought the perfect vacation involved sand and warm weather. Ideally, the sand would be on the coast of New Jersey, and there would be excellent restaurants within walking distance of our shore-front house. Not this time.
Denali. Susan Butcher was the first musher to summit Denali (Mount McKinley) with her dogsled.
We fly to Fairbanks. It feels like a frontier town, a working guys’ town. We spend the night in a modest motel. The next morning Frank leads me to the Chena River where we board a paddle steamer. There are lots of tourists on board. We paddle and steam along the river noting the dense woods on either side. Suddenly eight dogs emerge from the woods, pulling a sled. A young woman is driving. Her name is Susan Butcher. She tells us that she has raced with her dog team in the 1,150-mile Iditarod and won four times. Susan talks about her training methods with her dogs, which are year-long. Susan and her husband train dogs at their kennel, Trail Breakers, near Fairbanks. She is gracious and answers all the questions asked by the passengers. A few years after this, I read her obituary in the New York Times. She had died of leukemia at age 51 after a heroic battle.
Entrance to Denali National Park. Private cars are not allowed inside the park. The only way to see the park is on an organized bus tour.
The paddle boat cruises back to Fairbanks. We board a train the following morning. Frank recommends that I wear my hiking boots for the two-hour ride on the Alaska Railroad. We arrive at a small station and find buses waiting for us. Frank points me and my suitcase to the bus that says North Face Lodge. As we board, the driver says, “We’ll be traveling 98 miles into the park to the lodge. That is farther than any of the other buses go.
On the bus to North Face Lodge
North Face Lodge is very old and has the only sleeping accommodations in the park. It has 15 rooms and no plan to expand. [Note: Since 1996 North Face Lodge has expanded to a second site but it is still small.] The lodge is full. There are four industrialist and their wives from Milan, Italy. There are serious photographers and other couples who like adventure.
Blueberries and small plants are typical of the tundra
After lunch we break up into groups for hiking. Frank opts for a long, challenging hike. I choose the least strenuous over the tundra. It is springy underfoot because it rests on permafrost. The vegetation is composed of dwarf shrubs, sedges, grasses, mosses, lichens and rare trees. You never go out without a guide. There are 350 grizzly bears in the park. The wolf population is smaller, only 100. Earlier, from the bus window, we saw a bear crossing the road. On my leisurely walk we see only a badger. His size surprises me—he’s bigger than I expected.

Hiking in Denali
The next day we choose to stay together on a five-mile hike through the park with a guide. About twelve people are in our group. The Italian wives all have very chic hiking outfits. My outfit might be described as utilitarian. Our hike takes us to the Nenana River. It has creamy-colored water because its source is the Nenana Glacier. We take off our boots and socks and run across this frigid river. As we are hiking down toward the lodge, Frank and the guide spot a large, male grizzly heading in our direction.
Grizzly bear
The guide says, “Okay now, I want you all to stand as close together as you can. We need to look formidable to the grizzly.” We follow his directions immediately. The large, brown grizzly is known to the guide. He is about 100 yards from us, running fast, as though on a mission. He has no interest in us.
The lodge, the people, and the guided hikes are so interesting that we choose to stay a few more nights. One thing we have not seen, due to fog and mist, is Denali, at 20,310 feet, the highest mountain in North America. The next day I hear excited voices outside. “Guarda! Guarda! C’e la montagna!”
Denali viewed from Mirror Lake
I go out in the courtyard to see what is happening. The Italians point toward the mountain. The fog has lifted, and we now see the majestic mountain. It is so near to us that it takes my breath away. We are all laughing and congratulating one another.
A flight around Denali
That evening Frank takes a flight in a small plane around the top of the mountain. I choose not to fly. My brother, who is a Navy pilot, has warned me off small planes and high mountains.
Early in the morning of the fifth day we leave North Face Lodge. The bus has not gone far before we stop—the road is blocked by a mama grizzly and her two cubs. She stands on her hind legs and watches the bus and us. She must be eight feet tall. After a few minutes she signals to the cubs, and they go off into a nearby field where we see caribou grazing.
 This is what Frank meant by the “real Alaska” I think to myself.

Look for the second half of Nora's report next week.

Monday, May 28, 2018

WET BOTSWANA, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Botswana, Africa. Half-collared Kingfisher
Our friend Owen Floody, who recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, has had the good fortune of being able to travel frequently.  These trips have been divided between treks and safaris, reflecting his interests in seeing (and photographing) interesting landscapes and wildlife.  In 2017, for example, he completed three treks and two safaris, a personal record. (Note his previous posts on The Intrepid Tourist.) This post will describe the first of his 2017 safaris, a 14-day trip to Botswana with Wilderness Travel .
The trip to Botswana appealed to me for two major reasons.  First, it ran at an unusual time of the year.  Whereas one usually goes on safari in the local dry season (for reasons that will become apparent), this trip was aimed to coincide with the end of a wet season and I was curious to see how the African landscapes would look then.  Second, in comparison to many other commercial safaris, this had an unusually diverse and interesting itinerary.  Rather than visiting just one or two areas, this included 4-5 distinct (sometimes very distinct) habitats.  These included the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Savuti Channel and Chobe River.  But perhaps most notably, it included the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which I was particularly anxious to see and which essentially can only be visited in the wet season.
Including myself, there were seven guests on this trip and at least twice that number of support staff.  In that and other respects, the trip might be described as a luxury camping tour.  For the most part, we lived comfortably (e.g., hot showers on demand, amazing food from an extremely simple “kitchen”) in a tented camp, but one that moved from area to area with us.  The only exception to this was our stop in the Okavango Delta, where we got in and out by small plane and/or boat, and so could not bring with us the truck that gave our mobile camp its mobility.
Wild dogs, Kalahari
In turn, my decisions to follow this itinerary in the wet season had both positive and negative consequences.  Let’s get the latter out of the way first.
The first negative consequence was completely predictable and so can’t really be seen as a weakness of the itinerary.  Because of the lush vegetation and widely distributed water, animals simply are harder to find and view in the wet season.  For instance, (1) Why is the lioness walking in the road? (2) How visible would she have been if displaced a few feet to the left?  Second, even though I initially thought that the mid-April timing of this trip might be too late, we ran into a surprising amount of water, enough to flood roads and potential camps, requiring adjustments in our plans. All safaris are at the mercy of unpredictable weather and our guides were able to make very effective adjustments on the fly, reflecting a big advantage of travel with a very reputable company.  Last, I thought that the amount and variety of wildlife near our Okavango lodge was a bit disappointing.  But I don’t know if this says something about the choice of lodge, the season or my expectations.
Offsetting these limitations were a like number of pluses.  First, we were able to visit the Kalahari and it was an eye-opener—much more lush and productive than I expected it to be in even this relatively fertile time of the year.  Second, largely due to the efforts of our two expert guides, we managed to see many wonderful mammals and birds.  This was a little less true in the Okavango than elsewhere. 
Hippo, Okuvango
But even in the Okavango, we had a terrific encounter with a pod of hippos and also a very pleasant morning on a Delta island, tracking elephants on foot.  Third, I think it’s worth emphasizing that the variety of sites that were included on the itinerary exposed us to a greater variety of wildlife than we otherwise would have seen.  Last, the wet season really was different.  It was lush and highly attractive as a result.  And the late rains even made the skies attractive and dramatic, especially early and late in the day.
So, do I recommend this trip?  That depends completely on the person I’m advising and what they’re after.  Remember that any safari is in part a game of chance.  And, despite the greater ease of avoidance and concealment enjoyed by animals in the wet season, we did very well.  Therefore, I found the trip to be very productive and enjoyable, though I might research the Okavango site to be used a little more searchingly before signing on again.

Monday, May 21, 2018

SIX DAYS IN LONDON, Part 2: Guest Post by Paige Arnold

Shakespeare's Globe Theater, London
My granddaughter Paige, age 12, spent six days in London with her parents during her spring break. She kept a diary of her daily activities (a family tradition) and has written them up in this blogpost. I am impressed with the number of things they did and the detail of her report. I thank her for her excellent report! Part 1 posted last week.

Day five, we went to Shakespeare’s Globe. The tour guide showed us the outside of the Globe.  It’s not the original, because the first one burned down, and the second one broke down.  It’s the third version.  The inside was very intricately decorated, especially the ceiling above the stage.  There are trapdoors on the ceiling above the stage and in the floor in the middle of the stage. 
Ceiling above the stage of the Globe Theater
The ceiling one was used for god-like characters to enter through.  The bottom one was for, well, the opposite.  Characters coming from hell would enter from the ground trapdoor.  In the middle of the tour, we sat down and watched actors practice for their play that they would be performing later for the public.  One of the actors was deaf, so she was acting with sign language and there was a translator on stage for her.   

Tate Modern, Mao by Andy Warhol
After that, we went to the Tate Modern Museum for a little while.  The art there was really, really cool.  We only stayed for a short while, because we had to go to lunch.  We ate somewhere called Padella.  It’s a pasta restaurant right outside of Borough market.  The pasta was exceptional and I would have gotten more, but I was stuffed.  
Footbridge across the Thames to the Tate Modern
After that, we walked back to the Tate Modern Museum and looked at the rest of the exhibits.  It filled my mind to the point of overflowing with new ideas and thoughts.  Then we walked home.  For dinner, we went to a tapas place.  We got many little plates, which were all fantastic.  My favorite dish was the jamon croquettes.  They are deep fried mashed potatoes and ham.  I also liked the shrimp.  It was just shrimp in olive oil with herbs, but it was so good! 
Underground in Churchill's Bunker used in WW II
On the last day, we went to lots of places.  First, we walked to Churchill’s bunkers.  We got very lucky, because the people in the front of the line had to wait 1 hour 30 minutes, but we only had to wait about 5-7 minutes.  The inside was really cool, and a lot of the stuff inside had actually been there during the war.  You had to have an audio tour, so it was really quiet when you took off the headset.  In the middle, there was more of a museum part, but the rest of the tour was just the bunkers. 
St. James Park on a warm April afternoon
After that, we went to Saint James Park so I could draw.  There were lots of people because it was a beautiful day.  There is a small lake in the middle, and there were lots of pretty waterfowl.   
There was an abundance of storks, swans, ducks, coots, and pigeons.  We just had hotdogs for lunch.  They were pretty good.  
Mounted soldier at Buckingham Palace
Then, we went to Buckingham Palace.  We didn’t know this, but the day before was the queen’s 92nd  birthday. Also, the streets were blocked because the day after was the London marathon.  It was cool because they had the traditional guards with the tall black fluffy hats and red jackets, but they also had police officers on the side.
Nike statue at Trafalgar Square
Next, we went to Trafalgar Square.  There were two floating people in Yoda costumes, and two other floating people in costumes.  
Yoda mime at Trafalgar Square
There was someone in a giant Pikachu costume, and a mime or two.  Oh, and there was also a concert going on.  There was a lot of stuff.

Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery
We then took a quick look inside the National Gallery.  They had the famous Van Gogh sunflower painting.  They also had lots of Monet and Murillo paintings.  We took the subway back home and rested for a bit.  After that, we went to dinner at an Indian restaurant called Mango.  The food was spicier than I was used to, but it was very good.  That was our last day in London.  I had a great time there, and I hope some of you will also go there.

Photographs by Paige and Matt Arnold 
Paige and her dad, Matt

Monday, May 14, 2018

SIX DAYS IN LONDON, Part 1: Guest Post by Paige Arnold

Tower Bridge, London, England
My granddaughter Paige, age 12, spent six days in London with her parents during her spring break and kept a diary of her daily activities (a family tradition.) She has written them up in this blogpost. I am impressed with the number of things they did and the detail of her report. I thank her for her excellent writing! Part 2 will post next week.

My first day in London was very nice.  We rented an apartment near the London Bridge, which is in a very nice neighborhood.  It’s close to the tallest building in the U.K., the Shard.   
The Shard, London's tallest building, was designed by Renzo Piano and is 1016 feet tall
We walked around a bit, and ate dinner at a pub called “The Garrison Public House.” They had some classic English food like mushy peas and fish and chips.  It was great food. Before that we walked across the Tower Bridge, which is one of the many bridges crossing the River Thames. 
Fresh juice at the Borough Market
The second day, we went to the Borough Market. It’s a big market with many stands selling a variety of foods such as meat, fresh produce, and baked goods. To have lunch, we went to somewhere called Fish! in the market. There was lots of seating and great food. They even gave me and my dad a napkin and a little bowl of water with a slice of lemon in it, just in case we had greasy fingers from our lunch.
Tower of London
Later that day, we went to the London Dungeons. It was around 80% fun haunted-house-like and 20% historical.  It was fun, and there was a water roller coaster in the middle of the tour. They went over many subjects, such as the torture methods, the plague, and murderers. It was very realistic and neat to go through. Also, the tour guides were very good at acting. For dinner, we went to a restaurant named Sartoria.  It was really fancy and the food was super great and rich. The only problem was that it took a really long time for us to leave because they forgot to give us our check. 
At the Olympic swimming pool
On the third day, we went to the Olympic complex to swim. They have three pools: a competition pool, a training pool, and a recreation pool.  They are all very nice, and the competition pool has a good depth. Afterwards, I went outside into the enormous park to draw people.  
Climbing wall in park outside Olympic Complex
There was a playground, a climbing wall, and it was right next to a river which had boats you could rent.  Right across the river, there was West Ham United.  We spent around 1 hour 30 minutes there, and then went home. 
Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theater, London
That night, we went to Wicked, which was playing in the theater district. It’s kind of like the prequel to the Wizard of Oz that shows the Wicked Witch of the West’s backstory.  But, it was shown in a different format, with her going to high school.  It lasted about two hours, with a 15 minute intermission in the middle.  Before that, we went to an Indian restaurant called Simply Indian.  The food there was the best Indian food I have ever tasted, even though it was just this little hole in the wall place on a side street.
High Tea at Sketch
For the fourth day, we went to this place called Sketch for high tea.  It’s a modern restaurant with art posted all around where you eat.  They had really nice plates and cups and things that said random stuff on them.  For example, forget about it was written on the bottom of each teacup, ghosts was written on all the teapots, and it’s ok and it’s not ok were written on the sides of the little sugar bowl.  
Egg bathroom at Sketch. Inside each individual egg, forest music was playing.
But the coolest part of the restaurant was the bathroom.  Both the men and the women went through a door; then there was this giant fat egg thing in the middle of two curved staircases. Oh, and the whole bathroom (including the stairs and the giant fat egg) was pure white. The women went up the staircase on the right, while the men went up the staircase on the left.  Then comes the most interesting part. The toilets were inside eggs. There was a cluster of about 8-10 eggs on both sides.
National Portrait Gallery
After that, we went to the National Portrait Gallery. They had a lot of portraits of kings such as King Charles II and King Edward VII.  For dinner, we went to a pub called Trinity.  They had some very interesting food. My dad ordered whitefish fries, which we thought were deep fried pieces of whitefish, but they were entire fried mini-whitefish! My mom ordered fish and chips, which came with the fish’s skin and scales on. Overall, the food was good. I had a good time. 
Old London phone booth

Photos by Paige Arnold and Matt Arnold

Look for part 2 next week.