The National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers Show happened this past week in Anaheim, CA. Oh, what fun! Or so my son tried to convince me as we talked about his upcoming trip to the Show from Chicago. Since my wife and I live in Palm Springs, we are close enough to go visit him while he was there. But more than that, he convinced me to go to the show on the thought I might be able to assist him in his endeavors for the Chicago Foodseum.
Now, I’ve been to many such “industry” shows in connection with my previous employment, although talking to manufacturers of military equipment and their uses is a far cry from talking to those whose primary concern is food preparation, preservation and/or presentation. Once past that difference, however, this Show was remarkably similar to my previous experiences.
Getting past the registration desk was quick (love those computers) and once I had the necessary badge hanging from my neck, I was able to enter the acres of exhibitor space and wander around. Just as with the military shows of my past, I was not really their primary customer (long story). Therefore, I avoided most contact with the individual company representatives, as talking to me is not why they were there. However, my son had suggested I might write a blog about the Show, so at least I had a cover story, if I needed one.
Companies that caught my attention:
Michigan Maple Block Company — We’ve lived in Michigan on and off for 14 years, and consider it a great place of interest. That and the woodworking connection made this vendor a favorite!
Chef Specialties Co, Inc — This company’s display indicated its product line as exclusively pepper mills. A very nice representative saw me gawking and kindly showed me the internals of their product and how they worked. I give them credit, the metal grinding wheel was more sophisticated than one I saw at another exhibitor in the show. This lends credence to their claim to create the best mills available. Their website suggests they also supply salt dispensers, but their focus is clear. They have to win the award for the company with the most singularly focused product line at the Show.
Duke Manufacturing Co. — This is a much more diversified product manufacturing company, although what first caught my eye were the panels describing the firm’s history. The company started in 1925, with a single product – the first waterless hot food well. Now I don’t have a clue what this does for the buyer, but it must have been well received (no pun intended), as now the company has over 4500 different products which it sells around the world. In reading the history, it has as clients several recognizable names in the fast food industry, as well as restaurant chains that are not so “fast”. In reading through the history, I came to the realization that this company is as forward-looking as any of the ones I have studied as potential investments — a demonstrated sustainability concern in product offerings, selling not only products but custom solutions, and energetic international expansion just for example — and to my surprise, it’s a privately-owned company. By definition, investment is only possible with public companies, so my experience with private ones is very limited. My, investigations have led me to believe that the shareholders expectations are the drivers for continuous growth and improvement. Well, OK; market competition is the ultimate driver of change, but the requirements of anonymous shareholders require management to be constantly up-to-date in responding to those changes, right? Of course it must be the same way for private companies (duh!) if they are to compete with public ones. The sign says that the current Chairman and CEO is an owner, so clearly in some cases it is not necessary to have distance and anonymity between owner and management to assure a top-of-the-line, leader-of-the-pack growing company. Alright, a lesson in the obvious, but every once in awhile I need one of those.
Vollrath Co., LLC — A large company with many product and service offerings, what caught my eye at their stand was the “Induction Seduction” sign. Induction cooking is not common in homes as yet, but thanks to a friend of ours, we have just installed one at our house. Induction heats through electrical induction rather than thermal conduction as is the case with the usual gas or electric stoves. The induction element has a heating performance comparable to a gas burner, but is significantly more energy-efficient. It also has in common with gas stoves the advantage of almost instantaneous adjustment of heating levels. (Information from “theinductionsite.com”). Vollrath was not the only induction stove vendor at the Show, I should point out, but rather one of only 17.
Clearly one of the chef’s most important possessions is his knife (or knives, of course), so it was not a surprise to find Victorinox with a number of its traditional products on display. While not always the first thing to come to mind when thinking of food equipment manufacturers, one does have to clean up the kitchen and dining room, so why not Rubbermaid? Looking like a poodle skirt of the 1950’s, their latest mop-head upgrade has along the bottom a band of material to facilitate the mop’s spread, thus its usefulness. Innovation is valuable to us all!
True Food Service Equipment, Inc. — This company, started in 1945 by a man and his son making a roll-top bottle refrigeration unit for beer at their local bar, continues to focus on refrigeration equipment for a wide variety of food and beverage applications. One of the sales team noticed I had hesitated to read the signage describing their recent upgrade to use of R290 refrigerant. The sign described in simple-to-understand graphs and numbers the much reduced environmental impact due to the introduction of this hydrocarbon refrigerant. Although not the only vendor at the show using this new approach, they made it the center of their exhibit. The sales agent was kind enough to take a few minutes to help me understand the benefits described in more detail, but I deliberately kept our conversation short.
Atosa Catering Equipment, Inc. — As I was walking by Atosa’s area, one of their sales reps came out to greet me. It was later in the day, so I was less wary of taking up his time. He told me that Atosa is a Chinese company, with only a 26-month presence in the US. They already have distribution bases in five major cities. My new friend told me they are a leader in China in this business, and have a considerable distribution presence in many other countries besides China. They make virtually any catering equipment that can be made out of stainless steel, but their primary products are related to refrigeration. As with many of the vendors with large sales areas at the show, they are a wholesale-only business. I noticed there were a number of internationally-owned businesses at the show, but this one struck me as probably one of the newest in the US.
Lakeside Manufacturing, Inc. Milwaukee, WI — Many vendors offered carts of various kinds, but this company’s informal enhancement to their “MOBILITY” offering caught me a bit off-guard. Given the company’s base of operations, however, it was easily understood!
NAFEM has a very useful phone/tablet application which with my son’s help I was able to get into using the QR reader code supplied. The most popular product offered was racks and griddles, perhaps not too surprisingly for people who are familiar with the industry. A couple of new items for me are the Bain Maries (a container of hot water into which a pan is set for controlled-heat cooking) and the Mandolines (slicing tool to get even slices). Perhaps not surprisingly, the item that was on offer from the fewest vendors was fabric napkins.
Industry conventions or shows are very useful for the industry involved, but it is easy for me to learn interesting things as well, and that makes them fun.
7 August 2014 — Air history, and animal conservation
The first thing we did today was go visit the Anchorage Air Museum. This is smaller and more colloquial than the Palm Springs Air Museum, but really quite well done. The focus is on the early air pioneers in Alaska, starting with the first airplane brought here. This was in 1913, when James V. Martin and his wife Lilly were invited to bring their airplane “show” to Anchorage for the July 4th celebration. Flight was not established enough for them to fly their machine to Fairbanks, so they disassembled it and shipped it piece by piece. The “show” was the plane being flown for short-duration flight demonstrations for three days in July, starting on the 4th. The Martin entourage and the plane got to Anchorage well ahead of time, and the Martins were feted by the locals. In between fetes, the plane got put back together, and after some adjustments, it flew. It took several trips (none longer than 20 minutes), and the demonstration was over. Martin tried to sell the plane locally, but got no offers, so he and the team disassembled it and sent it back to the lower 48. Commercial aviation finally came to Alaska in 1923, and thus began the era of the bush pilot, which continues to this day. The museum in its main building had several examples of these early planes as well as early engines, wings, propellers, skids, floats and assorted air service costumes.
In addition to the bush pilot information, the museum has an eclectic collection of planes, all previously in use in Alaska. Outdoors, the museum had an F-15 (without engines), a commercial 737 which was called the “guppy” (presumably named for its remarkable resemblance dimensionally to the fish by that name), and several other larger airplanes. In a second hangar, the museum has some planes from the WW II. These are small planes which were in use in the Alaskan or Russian area at that time. Elmendorf Air Force Base is near Anchorage, and I suspect the planes were flown out of what would have been Elmendorf field at the time.
In a third hanger, there are two or three disassembled planes, mainly fuselages with their wings taken off. The wings are set in wooden frames so that they were resting on their front or back edge, waiting for reconstruction. These wings had obvious bullet holes in them, like they had been shot down.
The Guppy is parked outside the buildings with a stairway allowing entrance into the craft right behind the pilots’ seats. Inside, the pilot and copilot chairs are on the right, and as you turn to the left, there is a kitchen area, and then the seats. The seat chairs sit facing each other, with perhaps eight seats on a side. Each has a floor lamp behind it giving it the look of a number of living room set side-by-side and face-to-face.
There are several informative films located in theaters throughout the museum.
There are even blue prints for local planes hanging on the walls in one hallway, including a Sopwith Camel. They are in the process of rejuvenating the original control tower, which is located on the grounds of the museum. I assume it has been replaced by a more modern version at another site as there are no people in it today to guide the number of sea planes that periodically take off down the channel area in front of us.
It is short (a couple of stories) but for the geography of the channels, I guess a taller building is not necessary.
This afternoon, Marlene drove Gwen and me to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, about an hour out of Anchorage.
They care for wild animals, bears, moose, linx, caribou, and bison that are brought in with injuries. The goal is always to restore the animal to the wild, but where that is not possible, they will either keep it for public viewing, or move it on to other zoos where it can be well taken care of.
The first animals we came across are the caribou. Wow, even though I have taken quite a few pictures of these animals in the wild on this trip, I didn’t realize how big they really are. We walked into a barn like structure open on one side where the caribou were walking in for a feeding. The ones there are easily the size of a large horse. And with the antlers, they take up a lot of room.
In the next area were the musk ox, They stand, slowly chewing their cud, not paying attention to the paying customers at all. Next up, the bears, black and brown. There is only one black one we see, and he is eating with his head facing the other way, so we really don’t get a good look at his face. There are three brown ones however, and they are quite active and entertaining.
They have a number of medium size trees in the enclosure available for the bears to use. O ne of the brown ones used two of the trees near the fence as a combination scratching post and vertical wrestling bag. He would alternatively push into one of them, and then grab it around trying to push it over. Another brown bear was in the large pond, entertaining himself by tossing a stick up in the air and then retrieving it. It was fun to watch. A separate enclosed area contains got a couple of moose, lazily munching the patch of grass they are standing on. Another large animal the Conservation Center works with are North American Wood Bison. We saw a whole lot of these, as they are breeding them for release back into the wild next year. The first release site is in the interior of Alaska, but not too far in.
There are two linx in a cage we got to see, watching them as they were fed. One is a youngster, just being introduced to the older one, who has just lost her sister of many years. In the another large cage nearby is a fox who looked very much like the one we had seen in Denali walking along beside the bus.
On the way to and from the Conservation Center we went along beside Cook’s Inlet which is very wide, but not very deep. Lots of the bay area was sand, as it was closer to low tide than high tide, but we could see on our way back an hour or so later that the water was coming back into the bay. The weather was strange, although perhaps not so strange for Alaska. It was cloudy and dull in Anchorage, but not raining much. As we got to the Conservation Center about 50 miles south of Anchorage, the rain was really coming down. Coming back to Anchorage, the rain eased off, and disappeared altogether by the time we got back to the hotel. The clouds climbed down the mountains that surrounded us, showing a low ceiling we could see as we approached. We passed by Beluga Point where the whales of that type are supposed to be easily seen at the right time of year. We stopped, but didn’t see any.
This evening, we’re going to eat with the Sherman family across the street at the “Famous Aviator” restaurant where we ate breakfast. It should be fun. Milton, the father, has an interesting structure for a science fiction novel he plans on writing, and we look forward to discussing it.
8 August 2014 — Rainy and cold, cold and rainy
Today is the rafting trip at and around Spencer Glacier. This is just a little bit further than the Conservation Center, but out the same way, along Cook’s Inlet. But today’s trip is to be by railroad. We had of course seen the track yesterday as we had driven along. Since we had ridden the Alaskan RR before, we also knew that it was not a fast trip compared with travel by bus or car. So it was no surprise as we started out at 8:30 am that it would take us until at least noon to get to our destination. The train was very comfortable, and was similar to the other rides in that there was a talking conductor who was happy to describe for us what we were seeing along the way. The company we were taking the trip with showed up at one of the first stops.
Their representative started to fit us for boots, and answered questions. One of the questions had to do with the weather, as where we were at the second stop was windy and rainy, cloudy and dark, oh yes, and cold! The guide equivocated: the weather around the next mountain (where our destination apparently was) could be quite different than the obviously difficult weather we were seeing. When were we going to be there? Oh, in about an hour…
Well, it was two hours and three more stops before we got to the Spencer Whistle Stop, our goal. And the rep was right, the weather has indeed changed somewhat for the better.
It is brighter and while not clearing, the whiter clouds appear to be higher. So off we get, and dutifully go to get our life preservers, and eventually ponchos on as well. We are already wearing the boots we received on board the train. So to our bus we go, and it takes us a couple of miles to the shore of Spencer Lake. The lake is populated with icebergs, large and small, clearly calved off of the glacier which dominates the opposite shore. Immediately in front of us, however, were rubber rafts, five of them. They are our immediate transportation, and the task at hand is to get on board without getting too wet. Our party of 12 (now among a group of about 30) is divided into two rafts, six each, with Adam volunteering to share a raft with the Herrens.
The guide in our boat, Gus, is the acknowledged rookie, this being his first season doing this. No stranger to outdoors living, nor to the area, he tells us he grew up within 30 miles of here. He tells us he qualified very easily for his current job. This quiets our fears a bit. The large rubber raft has three rubber cylindrical seats set across the middle, with a large rubber oval frame surrounding a heavy bottom underneath it all. Mitch and I took the rear-most bench, so Gwen and Robin had the central one, and Chris and Joy the front one. Gus sat on a wood and aluminum platform which put him above the rear end of the raft, with a long oar to each side. From this position, he steers and when necessary, powers the boat with the oars. As it turns out, he really is quite expert at maneuvering the craft. He took us up to several of the larger icebergs, giving us a good look, and at least a couple of times allowing us to touch the ice. The rubber rafts bounce off of the icebergs without a problem, and give us close looks at the blue ice. We don’t approach the glacier itself for some reason, but probably to avoid getting clobbered by calving ice chunks.
After about 45 minutes floating around among the icebergs, we ‘find’ the river mouth and float into it. Almost immediately into this leg of the trip, we encounter mild rapids (class 2-, we were told). This bounces u a bit, adding some excitement to the day. The extra stimulation is a useful diversion, as the weather is worsening, the rain is getting more insistent, and the wind is picking up. The dark clouds are back, and my feet are freezing. I have the uncomfortable feeling that maybe I have water in my boots, although that turns out when I finally get to take them off, not to be the case. The difficulty was simply that the rubber boots were very good conductors of heat away from my feet into the cold water collecting around the edges of the raft. Just about this time, Gus announces that we have about another hour to go. This didn’t make anyone particularly happy, but there is nothing to be done. Gus did a good job navigating us, as well as trying to describe what we were able to see around us, in part I think to help us keep our minds off the rain. At a point down the river, we come upon a beaver dam on the left hand side. It is clear that the beaver is still manning it, as the part of the river to the left of the dam is about a foot higher than the part we were traveling through. Unfortunately we don’t see the beaver, although Gus assures us that others before us have.
Gus announces the half hour and fifteen minute marks, to increasing cheers as the rain is getting heavier and heavier. We end up at a piece of shore which is very close to the railroad track (about 20 feet of shore separates water from track).
There is no platform for the train, only a set of aluminum steps by the side of the track. This whistle stop is not far from Portage where we got off. On the shoreline, there is a set of purpose-built steps laid down to help people get off the rafts. After each raft unloads, it is disassembled (the oars taken off and the aluminum and wood frame guide’s seat is detached), and the rafts are piled up on the side of the unloading area. We await the train, which comes up along the track where we are standing around shortly after the last raft is unloaded, stopping at just the right point to allow us to get back on board. The train takes us back to Portage, and from there, we got on a bus which in about an hour brought us back to the train station we had started from in Anchorage. Albert and Marlene are there waiting for us, and they bring us back to the hotel. After we have a chance to change our clothes and warm up a bit, we all go out to Nova’s, a restaurant nearby where we get some exceptional Italian food, and a chance to celebrate the great adventures we have had.
We say our goodbyes at the hotel once we get back, and prepare to go back home.
9 August 2014: Home again
Gwen and I get up early, and after meeting Albert and the Sherman family downstairs in the hotel main room, make our way to the airport bus. The plane rides back are uneventful, although we get a bit of a scare when the plane from Dallas to Chicago is delayed due to storm activity in the area. We get back to Flint airport at 11:30 pm, but our bags have not accompanied us, so we have to deal with the paperwork necessary to have them tracked down. Our driver is very kind about the delay, and we make it home shortly after 1:00 am. Fortunately the bags do show up the next day, and so we are truly home and dry.
5 August 2014 — A day of leisure and dog sledding
We got up late, got dressed and were just about to go out of our room to walk into town for breakfast when Marlene knocked on our door. They were looking for the mosquito netting to give to the Herren family for today. Yesterday’s adventure for us is this morning’s adventure for them, as Dennis only has enough ATVs for half our group at a time. Unfortunately we don’t have the nets, but Marlene offered to take us into town. The Herrens were already in the van, so we joined and Marlene drove us to Dennis’s ATV place to drop them off. She then took us through town to the Talkeetna River, where the view of Mt McKinley was bright and clear. What a sight! S he was kind enough to take our picture with the mountain in the background. She dropped us off at the Roadhouse, where they served pancakes larger than the plate, and we got the chance to taste not only the blueberry pancakes, but reindeer sausage as well. Excellent breakfast.
We walk back to our hotel, check out of our room by noon, and get picked up at 1:30 to go to the dog sledding place.
The dog sledding place: Dream a Dream Dog Farm (Willow, AK) is owned and operated by Vern Harper and a woman whose name I have forgotten. Linda, one of the folks who works there, gave us a good half an hour’s presentation on the Iditarod, the “how” of the run, the “dress” one needed to survive, and the details of Vern and the lady’s history with the various races that have been spawned off of the success of the Iditarod. The race covers just over 1000 miles, running from Willow to Nome, in March of the year. The race has a ceremonial start in Anchorage, and then the actual “for the money” start in Willow the next day.
The race traces its roots back to dog sled races for money in the early 1900’s and the famous 1925 “Great Race of Mercy”. A diphtheria epidemic in Nome in early 1925 required antitoxin to be shipped from Seward, and as there were no other alternatives at the time, it had to be done by dog sled. The serum was sent by train from Seward to Nenana, and then relayed by dog sled (using 20 mushers and over 100 dogs) over the remaining 674 miles, arriving five and a half days later on February 2, 1925. In 1967, a 25-mile race to honor the early mushers and their dogs, and the Mercy run was successfully held near Anchorage. In 1973, a much extended race, running along the Iditarod trail (originally marked out in 1908) was held, and has been run every year since, growing into the largest competitive sporting event in Alaska. It has reawakened interest in mushing and in raising sled dogs, having spawned a number of other dog sled racing events. It has more than succeeded in counterbalancing the decline in interest in dog sledding brought about by the advent of motorized skimobiles in the 1960s.
After her presentation, she took us out into the back yard where there were about 40 dog houses, 4 rows of 10 each, with dogs outside of most of them. They are very energetic, jumping around, and clearly they know they are going to be out pulling. Sure enough, out comes the line to which 16 of them would be attached, and they went nuts, tugging, barking, whining, baying, bumping into those near by, and in general making themselves known. Three of the people started moving the dogs they identify as the most energetic from the leads from their dog houses to the leads on the line. There are two connections to the line, one at the collar, and one at the back of the pulling harness. Just as we were told, once they get hitched, their first instinct is to pull on the harness line. And pull they do. About half of them are connected, and all of a sudden, one of the harness hitch lines to one of the dogs breaks. All hands are called to help (including ours) to restrain the dogs so that none of them get hurt. Once under control, the line is replaced, and the dogs are reselected to go onto the new line. Soon all is well, and there are 16 dogs connected to the line. Oh, yes, what is the line connected to? As it is summer, and there is no snow, It is connected to a large motorized quad vehicle with enough seating space for 6 to 8 people to be pulled along. The driver uses the engine to keep the line taut, thus giving the dogs exercise without overly straining them. The family Herren and Adam are the first riders. The rest of us ride in a van to the half-way point, where we traded places to get our chance to ride back to the kennel area. The ride covered about two miles each way. The dogs were given two rests along the way, and on this particular path had several puddles (one deep enough to get water on the floor boards of the Quad) to navigate through.
The dogs were great, and riding behind them was fantastic. After the dogs were unhitched, they were given a piece of frozen salmon to eat (a treat for them). Two ‘retired’ dogs (ex-Iditarod runners who are now too old to compete) were given some as well, and I think the rest of the dogs eventually got something, but I may be wrong. Anyway, we then wandered down to see the puppies. Linda unlocked the gate and let them out to take them on a walk through the woods nearby. We walked along behind, and although the dogs ran into the woods, out again, and back in again, we kept going down a path that eventually wrapped around and came back to the kennel yard. It was especially fun as the older Herren daughter (Chinena, aged 10) was practicing her English with Gwen, who was practicing her German back to her. All and all a good time was had by all.
We got back to the hotel and had dinner at the Bistro, a version of Starbucks within the hotel. Not the best, but close by…
6 August 2014 — A walk on a glacier
Today we started out at 9:00 am on a two hour van trip to the Matanuska Glacier. The glacier is 4 miles across the front, and 27 miles long. We have a very kind guide, Abbie, who leads us through the process of getting our crampons for our shoes, and a check to be sure our bags had the right stuff in them. The glacier trek was fun — walking with crampons was not as hard as it seemed, and with the crampons, it was easy to keep from slipping on the ice. The ice was intermixed with dirt and rocks of every size from small pebbles to large boulders. Melt water ran in groves created as the glacier melted, creating lines and crevices in geometric patterns. The ice when the sun shown in the right places came out the blue color we had seen on the other glaciers we had seen. There were several other parties out on the ice. Two guys were on an easy slope practicing climbing, while in another area there were people practicing more difficult maneuvers. It was fun. Abbie was very helpful, pointing out the aspects we didn’t know about before, and helping set the path for us so we didn’t have difficulties.
We had a late lunch at the Long Rifle Lodge next door to the glacier walk area. It provided great views of the glacier, and as it used to be a hunting lodge, had lots of stuffed animals inside to help set the atmosphere.
Tomorrow is an opportunity to explore Anchorage — we’re going to the air museum and the animal conservatory.
4 August 2014 — ATVs and Back Country living
Today’s activity was to get on ATVs and drive ourselves back into the (close by) back country with Dennis. The first step was learning how to drive the ATVs, as most of us (including me) had never driven one before. Dennis was patient and a good guide in our learning, and soon we were all riding along the side of the road, and where possible off the main roads. We learned a bit of the history of Talkeetna from him, and shortly were headed down a strictly ATV trail that ran along the railroad tracks. Two bridges were our most challenging parts, as the ATVs were as wide as the area on the bridge beside the railroad tracks fenced off for us to use. Keeping going in a straight line was harder than I thought it would be as it was hard to keep the tires from rubbing on the rails that marked the borders of our path. But after the bridges, the path was wide enough for two ATVs to pass each other going along, so there was plenty of room. The road was very much like the dirt part of Bridge Lake Rd in Clarkston, with potholes and occasional washboarding all along it. It was fun to ride the quads. If you let the person ahead of you get a fair distance away, you could gun the engine and get up to 35 mph to catch up. For the washboard parts, it was easy to stand up on the foot boards and use your legs as shock absorbers.
Our first stop was the old homestead, where Dennis’s father and mother brought their family (he and his 3 brothers and a sister) to live when they first came to Alaska. It was 1959, and they came from Detroit where the jobs had gotten scarce with a group of families. Alaska was just coming to the end of its land-grant days, where if you staked out an area (of as much as 160 acres), farmed it for three years, and built you home on it, the state would grant you title to it. A group of Dennis’s family friends banded together for the trip, a modern version of nineteenth century wagon trains. It took them three months moving slowly as breakdowns, arguments concerning which way to go, and health issues interfered. Dennis’s family lived in a camper sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, which made for very crowded conditions. When they got to the Talkeetna area, Dennis’s family marked off their land (160 acres bordering the railroad track) and started the process of homesteading. They cleared some land, started to build a log cabin, and planted barley. The crop didn’t take, but they were able to find work in the town and surrounding homesteads, and thus got enough money to get the materials to finish the cabin. The homestead now has the old pick-up based camper and the remains of the cabin itself. It is falling in on itself, but the highlight of the site is the grave of his father 100 yards off away in the woods. His father was a poet (like Gwen’s father), and he wrote his own epitaph. We spent a few minutes cleaning the weeds off of the grave in remembrance.
Onward we went, and eventually we came to Dennis’s current homestead. This one has been cleared for several of acres around the much newer main house, and there is a clear creek including a small waterfall with a pond behind running though the back of the property. It’s a log cabin, like the original, but much more spacious and very up to date. He uses a gasoline powered generator for electricity (it runs only when he needs it, mainly in the evenings). He pumps his water from a well, and uses propane for his other functions. Heat comes from a central pot stove, which burns wood. It is enclosed and captures the byproducts to ensure there are no stray sparks to set the place on fire. The house is very well insulated and is comfortably warm, even though the fire only has one log burning. Besides, we were warm from our ATV trip in.
We ate lunch there (hauled in by Dennis on his ATV), and met his dog Chena, an 8-year-old german shepherd who loves to chase sticks thrown for him. The lunch was set out by Dennis’s close-by neighbor Patricia (she, her husband and son live 5 miles away). She had baked a marvelous banana bread which we eagerly consumed for dessert. Dennis took us to the creek, to a small lake area where he threw the stick and Chena dove in to retrieve it. A few of us took up Dennis’s offer to let us shoot one of his rifles at a target he had set up along the creek bed. Given the choice of shooting the “man’s gun” or the “ladies rifle”, you can guess which one we chose: the one that shot .375 shells, at a target about 200 yards away. Adam was the first to go, and of the four of us who tried, he was proved to be the best shot. I enjoyed the opportunity, and managed to get close to the center. It’s harder than it looks, but Dennis is a good teacher.
Gwen and the ladies hung around the cabin talking to Pat. Her family’s cabin is much more primitive than Dennis’s. They don’t have running water, nor any sewage system. They have an outhouse, which serves their needs even in winter. Gwen says they were from Nebraska, came here about eight years ago, and are quite happy about it. Their son (13 years old) is home-schooled, at least for now. Outside, Dennis helped us pan for gold in his stream while telling us stories and answered questions about himself and life on his back country estate. This was a great opportunity and we learned a lot. About 6:00 we got back on the ATVs and rode back to Talkeetna. The trip each way was about an hour. We dropped off the ATVs and Albert conveyed us back to our lodgings. We walked into town for a nice dinner at the Denali Brewing Co, then it was back to the lodgings and good night’s sleep.
3 August 2014 — Denali to Talkeetna, and beyond!
This was an early morning (5:00 wake-up, with 6:30 departure). We had one of the best drivers (according to Albert) on the roads in Denali, and indeed she was safe, yet able to point out the sights we wanted to see, and she got us to the train on time.
And Mt McKinley played hide and seek with us all though the first couple of hours. We saw far more than most people see in the summer, we were told, so we enjoyed what we could see. The morning light on the whole of the mountain range made for spectacular images.
Back in Denali, we were delivered to the railroad station. Contrary to most train schedules, they ran pretty much on time. The trip to Talkeetna was uneventful; we ate lunch in the dining car, enjoying the food, which was actually quite good. It was not really too pricy for Alaska, although the food remains pricy for the lower 48. Albert and Marlene (now accompanied by Matilda, a chiquaqua that we have hard about from the beginning of the trip. She is the apple of Albert’s eye, and you can see that the affection is reciprocated. We were delivered immediately to the local airport, as our next adventure is a small plane ride to a glacier about half an hour (air time) from Talkeetna. Gwen is not feeling well, so she decides to remain behind, which is good for getting our laundry done, and for getting her healthy, but it is my considered opinion after the trip that she missed one of the true highlights of our Alaskan vacation. The pilot, Jacques, piled the Sherman family (Mitch, Robin and Adam) into the 2nd and 3rd seat, and I get the co-pilot’s chair in what could have passed for a pre-WWII single engine monoplane. It is red, and the engine is a nine-cylinder wonder that never missed a beat. I don’t mind telling you that I had my qualms, as I had never flown in one of these small planes before. The dials are not that much different than I remembered from playing pilot simulation games on my first computer, an altimeter, engine speed, level indication, fuel consumption, and, oh yes, something not on my old computer, a GPS with a color display. Jacques starts the engine, using three pull-out controls on the dashboard between us, and proceeds to head down toward the runway. The plane has a short tail wheel, meaning it sits so that we are looking at the propeller, and can see quite well looking out side to side, but not so well straight ahead. We gain a little speed, and the plane rolls down to the end of the runway to execute the turn to take off. Full throttle now, playing a little with the fuel-air ratio and the flaps. We gain speed going down the runway, and in a remarkably short time, he pulls back on the bar and we are airborne. The ride is surprisingly smooth, and for the first time in a long time, I breathe. We gain altitude and head north, or something like north, I can only tell in that we see lots of trees, rivers, mountains, but no ocean. We do cross over the confluence of the three rivers (commemorated in the name Talkeetna, which means meeting of the three rivers in the Athabasca native tongue), which he tells us about. We had come by here on the train, and indeed the tracks are visible running by one of the rivers.
We’re up high enough now so that my fear of crashing into trees has been replaced by my conviction that we would not survive a fall at all. Surprisingly, I am not terrified, just mildly concerned, somewhat like being in a larger passenger plane. I guess the smoothness of the ride and the quality of the pilot’s handling of the aircraft have convinced me to leave the flying to him. We are all connected on an intercom system into headsets which enable us to talk to him, and of course he can talk to us, but we also hear all the communication with the control tower. There is another plane with us, carrying the other half of our tour group, headed to the same place we are, and they are ahead of us. The views are tremendous, and so much more satisfying than the two-dimensional views we have been seeing from the ground. One view we also got was again of Mt McKinley, which still had the cloud over the peak, but which was mostly visible to us in the evening sun.
After flying around for awhile, we come into the local mountain range, and I realize we are not flying over them, but are flying at an altitude that was less than their height. This brought more concerns, as I could see us flying right into the side of one of them. Indeed, we flew through and by them, viewing them close up as we passed. I thought I might get seasick from the rocking back and forth as he maneuvered through the peaks, but I didn’t feel any queasiness at all. To my totally unpracticed eye, it looked like we passed some of the cliffs awfully close, but miss them we did, and I am sure with plenty of room to spare. We finally went by one obvious glacier, wide with steep mountain sides on either side of it, and it is here we were to land. First, he said, we have to lose some altitude so that we are coming up to it rather than coming down on it. This did’t quite make sense to me, but of course, I wasn’t going to argue. So, descend he did, but not very far, and he turned a 270 degree turn as he descended to come in as he had said, gaining altitude. I should point out that about 10 minutes before we started this maneuver, he grabbed what for me would have been the parking brake handle on our old Honda, and started pumping away at it. The copilot’s seat was so close to the pilot’s seat that his right arm came up into my left inner elbow when he first started to pump, so I quickly moved closer to the door so he could pump. He told me that this was how he lowered the skids on which we were going to land. Lowered the skids? I had seen them skirting the wheels on the plane as we got in, and had noted the use of cables tied to the body of the plane, but it looked like a home-made structure, so I could not imagine that it actually moved. Move they did.
Jacques’ dialogue on the way was not limited to descriptions of the flora and fauna of the region. He started talking about the Athabasca Indians, and a study he had read recently relating the mitochondrial DNA (which, he explained is carried by the mother only, and therefore traces the lineage via mothers). The study had been of the DNA structures collected from the native indian populations, comparing them with that of the Asian populations from which they would have been derived according to current theory of the origin of the American peoples. The study had found a strange anomaly: the small random changes that were found in the Asian populations up to 27,000 years ago are reflected in the American Indian populations, but not those after that. The implication is that the American population separated from their Asian forebears at that time. That was as far as he got with the story, before he had to come down on the glacier, so that is as far as the story went. Once on the glacier, I asked him about it. I had read recently that there was some conflicts arising challenging the “walking across the Bering Straits” theory of the source of mankind in America, and the study he quoted seemed to fit this category. The concern is the timeline. Dating of the archeological remains suggests that the American Indians started to populating the continent around 10-12,000 years ago. When did the Bering Straits become “walkable”? Study’s suggest earlier, but now if the mitochondrial DNA suggested a separation 27,000 years ago, then what happened from then until 12,000 years ago? Interesting conversation.
Once we were on the ground (and the plane felt strange sliding on the snow), we extracted ourselves from the interior and started to explore our environment. Out in front of where we were was an obvious glacier (blue color, ridges, and so on). Behind the area where the planes were, vertical cliffs rising at least 2000 feet above our already high elevation. The snow on the ground was just that, snow. Somewhat slushy, but able to support us, snow. Across from us, at least a football field away, was the other side of this ‘valley’, with rocky outcroppings projecting up. On top of the nearest one was, to our surprise, an outhouse size building. Turns out it is indeed an outhouse. Around the rock it was on top of is a cabin that Don Sheldon built there to enable him to stay overnight if he wanted to on the glacier. The cabin (we were told, as we did not actually walk over to it) is a one-room affair, with benches around the walls where one can put a sleeping bag, and a stove in the center for heating. Everything has to be hauled in, of course, but people do stay there periodically. Don, who was a pioneer of commercial glacier flying and landing in lower Alaska, built it in the 1960’s. Our tour guide, Albert stayed there for three days with his daughter a few years ago, and said it was one of the most peaceful experiences he’s ever had.
We got back into the planes and flew back to Talkeetna. On the way, we saw two bears and two swans, although seeing was a bit of a challenge. They were small, and could only be distinguished by contrast to the background. Landing at the airport was not a problem, at least it was not for me. Jacques seemed to handle it in his stride. Me, I just pushed myself into the smallest area I could occupy on the right side of the plane.
From the airport, Albert took us on a tour of downtown Talkeetna (at least the historical part), which was not a long drive. We stopped and were able to get a table big enough for us at the Wildlife Restaurant. Dinner took awhile in coming, so we were happy to get dropped off at our hotel (Susitna Lodges) shortly thereafter for a good night’s sleep.
1 August 2014 — Anchorage to Denali National Park
Today’s trip was long, but not bad. We got up and were on the road at about 7:00 am. The trip to the park took us until noon, but it was punctuated by dialogue and pit stops, which made the morning go faster somehow. Near one of the pit stops was what some entrepreneur hoped to be a hotel/casino, but the building lacked enough fire exits, of all things. It is shaped like a very large igloo. The building is closed currently, until someone with enough money to install the fire exits, and enough guts to buy the risk of sufficient business comes along.
After a lunch at the park entrance, we boarded a bus for the trip into the park itself. This trip was about 90 miles, with lots of stops along the way to look at animals. We saw two grizzly bears, 30 or so caribou in three groups, a lone Dall’s sheep high on a hill far away from us, two moose, at some distance from us, and a fox with an Arctic squirrel in its mouth walking jauntily down the road as we passed by in the bus. This was quite a haul for the drive in, but we were not able to see Mt McKinley for the clouds and fog. The lodge we stayed at is a collection of log cabins which were apparently set up by a Fairbanks judge who decided to try to be the first to climb Mt. McKinley, but failed, and on his way out decided to try his hand at gold panning in the Eureka River. He succeeded beyond his expectations, and started a local gold rush in the process. The Kantishna Roadhouse came into being. The meal was good, and it was the first time we as a group (except our Swiss family, unfortunately) were able to eat together.
Tomorrow we get to explore the local terrain, and Gwen will get a message!
2 August 2014 — Kantishna Roadhouse deep in Denali National Park
This morning was interesting, but not for the reasons you might suspect from where we were. I went on the “easy” walk, essentially a leisurely tour down an old mining road for about a mile, and then back again. It took almost three hours to complete, so it was not strenuous. The group was led by Libby, a recent biology graduate from a small university in Vermont who is going on from her summer job here to two years in Madagascar doing hydraulic engineering and plant technology for the Peace Corps. In addition to her was a lady from Massachusetts and two couples from Dusseldorf, Germany. I got some chance to relocate my long lost German, spent some time deciphering the Bostonian accent, but most of the time we walked along examining the tundra flora we passed using Libby’s biological understanding. The most interesting item was the wormwood plant which, it turns out, is a good insect repellent if you rub a leaf of it between your fingers until it turns tender and smells something like mint, and then rub it over any exposed skin areas.
Gwen went over to Wonder Lake with Marlene (the wife of the leader of the expedition) and Robin. Once there, they walked over two miles along the banks of the Lake enjoying the scenery. Unfortunately, Mt McKinley did not pop out of the clouds to greet them. This is a constant theme in Denali, as the vast majority of the time (so we were told), the micro-climate of Mt McKinley keeps it surrounded by clouds regardless of the weather in the main multi-million acre park. This day, the sun didn’t shine for us in Denali at all, so even if Mt McKinley had been in bright sunshine, there was no chance of glimpsing it.
We regrouped for lunch in the main building. After lunch, Gwen and I read and lazed around until 2:00, when there was a presentation about the sled dogs they use to get around in the park during the winter. The presenter is the son of an Iditarod competition participant (13 times), and he himself has done the “junior” Iditarod, which is 250 miles as opposed to the 1025 miles. He won that race once. He did a very good presentation, and I learned a lot about the strategy racers employ, as well as the basics of dog sledding. One story he tells is of the time his father come into a checkpoint just behind the leader. The leader proceeded to feed his dogs and to lay out hay for the dogs to sleep on. Presuming he was taking one of the mandatory rest stops, his father did the same and then went ahead and took the booties off the dogs. The leader, as soon as he saw this, got his team up and off they went. His father had to re-boot his dogs, a time-consuming process, before he could give chase, and the result was a considerable extension of the time between them. Tactics make a difference!
Later on, I met up with Albert, who took me through his use of Adobe’s Lightroom, a picture developing tool like Apple’s Aperture, but with slightly different and easier-to-understand tools. He showed me a little bit of how he uses Adobe Photoshop as well. I’ll be trying his tricks on my photos once I get back to my computer at home.
Gwen panned for gold (unsuccessfully), and then accompanied Robin on another excursion, this one to the Fannie Quigley cabin. This was a 4’10’ woman who came out from Nebraska to go to the gold rush (late 1800’s) and settled in what is now Kantishna. Gwen can tell you the story.
This evening was a presentation by Libby (the leader on the hike I did in the morning) on animals in Denali, their tracks, scat, and other signs of their existence. It was well done, going through about 15 of the most prevalent animals and giving good information on each. Lots of pictures and good stories. From her, I learned enough to know how little I knew about tracking animals in the wild. On our journey this morning, we found evidence of only two animals, a moose (scat several days old), and humans (a tent pitched on the side of the hill opposite the river from where we were walking). The only other evidence we saw was a large self-propelled tractor shovel slowly making its way down the same road we were walking on.
Now its off to bed, and then tomorrow it is on to Talkeetna.