A May 2010 trip
to Alaska by Wildcat Dianne
Quote: My last five days of my Alaskan adventure were closer to our homebase in Anchorage. My adventures included a trip to the ski resort of Girdwood along with a fascinating trip with Larissa's friend Ed to a musk ox farm and pre-WWII gold mine outside of Palmer.
Attraction | "Hauntingly Beautiful Gold Mine"
There was an old hotel at the turnoff we needed to take to go to Independence Gold Mine that Larissa had visited in the past, but signs of the recession had made its way all the way up here, and the hotel was still boarded up for the winter and showed no sign of opening up for the summer tourist season.
Ed, Larissa and I arrived at Independence Mine and pulled into the parking lot at the bottom of the hill we would be climbing to get to the mine. We could see some of the mine's abandoned outer buildings from where we were standing figuring out our next plan of attack. The road leading to the mine was roadblocked with a locked barricade, but we were in good enough shape to conquer the fifteen-minute walk up the hill to the mine. However, one man in a truck went up to the gate and wasn't happy that it was barricaded and said he had a bad back and couldn't walk long distances. I said to Ed I had issues with the man's story and thought the man needed to lose some weight and maybe eliminate his back problems. If you do have breathing problems or other serious health issues, you might not want to attempt walking up the hill to Independence Mine. At 3,500 feet above sea level, it might be a problem for you.
The history of Independence Gold Mine was a short one but a rich one. Lode gold was first discovered by Robert Hatcher (of whom Hatcher Pass was named after) in 1906, but it was expensive to mine by hand and gold mining was not attempted in this area until 1938 when two gold mining camps were built in the Palmer area. One was the Alaska Free Gold Martin Mine on Skyscraper Mountain and the other was the Independence Mine which is located on Granite Mountain. Both mining camps were set up by the Alaska-Pacific Consolidation Mining Company (APC). Over 83 mining claims were discovered near at the Independence Mine.
In 1941 the APC employed 204 men to work at the Independence Mine where 34,000 ounces of gold valued at then $1.2 million was mined. Many of these miners had families and wanted to be with them, so the APC built Boomtown where the 22 miners' families could live and the children (eight in all) could go to school.
By the end of 1941, the USA was at war with Japan and Germany and by early 1942, gold mining was considered as "unessential to the war effort" and gold mining was pretty much stopped altogether in the USA except at the Independence Mine in Alaska. Why? Lode Gold in Alaska contains Sheelite which is a source of Tungsten, an important metal, that could be used to make weapons and other thing vital to the war effort. But, unfortunately for the Independence Mine, the amount of Sheelite coming from the mine was very low, and the government shut down Independence Mine in 1943.
Independence Mine was reopened after WWII in 1946, but gold mining in the USA was slow in recovering from WWII and gold was only worth $35 an ounce. Independence Mine went on mining gold at a low rate until January 1951 when it was closed for good. In 1974, Independence Mine became part of the National Register of Historic Places and in 1980, the title of the mine went to the State of Alaska.
Ed, Larissa and I finally made it up the hill to Independence Mine, and I was totally blown away by the haunting beauty of the place. Standing still, I could imagine what life was like for these miners and their families the 10 years Independence Mine was in existence. The mine itself is in ruins in the center of Boomtown, but the state of Alaska has reconstructed and painted many of the buildings that made up Boomtown including the school and several homes. There was also a general store for folks to buy goods but big shopping trips were made in Palmer once a month or so to stock up for winter or other times.
After touring the mine, Ed and I became separated from Larissa and wound up climbing the hills on Granite Mountain. I do not recommend this for anyone in bad shape, but I managed to keep up with Ed, the hardcore outdoorsman, for quite a while. Katie, the little butterball, kept up with her Daddy, too, but once the rocky hills got more vertical, Ed and I took a break and chatted a while. Ed was ready for more climbing and said I was free to come along. I told him if I couldn't make it, I would turn back and go back to Boomtown. I thought I would keep up with Ed but not long after we started hiking again, I kept falling and after one wonderful slip and Jacoby Ellsbury like slide down the hill into some snow, I gave up my hike of Granite Mountain and headed back to Ed's truck while Ed and Katie continued on. The one good thing about that little slide was that I discovered my Army Navy Store camo pants were waterproof and dried pretty quickly along with my hiking boots.
After maneuvering my way down Granite Mountain I finally hit flat land and Boomtown and hiked down to Ed's truck and had to wait about 30 minutes for Larissa and Ed to come down. I threw a few snowballs around to keep warm and kicked myself royally for not bringing the camera. This was the best trip during my Alaskan adventure, and if I come back to this beautiful state, I want to come back to Independence Mine.
Independence Mine is open from May-September and when it is open for the season, they ask for you to drop $4 into the admissions bucket at the entrance. Make sure you are in good shape, bring water and good shoes and enjoy the haunting beauty of Independence Mine.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 26, 2010
Independence Mine State Historical Park
Hatcher Pass, Mat-Su Region
Palmer, Alaska 99501
Attraction | "Close Encounters Of The Wooly Kind"
Upon arriving on the farm, we had to keep Katie in the back of Ed's truck with the window open since dogs are not allowed on the farm at all. We went into the gift shop to get our tickets for our half-hour tour and had time to wander around the educational little museum and gift shop before our guide came to get us. All proceeds from the gift shop go to the farm and the Natives who create the knit goods from the qiviut. I would have loved to have bought some of the qiviut they had on sale at the Musk Ox Farm but at $30 a skein, that would have been a major budget blower. I was resigned to looking at the works of art and touching them. The qiviut was softer than I expected and the work the native women does is done with small needles and the attention to detail is exquisite. I did add to the Christmas tree ornament collection by buying a musk ox felt ornament for $7. It was for a good cause.
A few minutes later, our guide shows up, and she is one of the Musk Ox Farm's owner's daughters. Now we know we are getting a real inside tour of the place. Ed, Larissa, and I are in a tour group with an elderly farming couple from Ohio and their friends who were locals. During the tour, "Farmer Brown" kept asking questions about the musk ox that were strarting to annoy the crap out of me. "Can the meat of musk ox be eaten?", "What does it taste like?" Come on now you were told that the musk ox here are raised for their wool, not to be musk ox burgers! Our guide has never eaten musk ox, and she ended the subject and gave us the tour we were there for, and I learned a lot in such a short time.
Musk ox usually are seen roaming in Greenland (the species there is smaller), Russia, and Arctic Canada. The Musk Ox that we were seeing that afternoon came from Russian stock, and they can handle some extremely cold temperatures. Our guide said it can get -30 below in the Palmer area in winter, but the thick outer and soft undercoat make it easy for the musk ox to survive extreme winters. Female musk ox can weigh up to 600 pounds while the male musk ox can reach heights of 6 feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Musk ox are pretty docile critters, but if there are female in heat and the males are horny, they can become very aggressive. When the female musk ox give birth to their young, they can become very protective and charge people or predators and cause some major damage. Both the male and female musk ox have huge curved horns on their heads, but the farm owners and their interns file down the horns so that they don't harm people or other musk ox with sharp ends.
Now to harvest musk ox wool is a feat in itself. It is a long and tedious process that is done every spring as the musk ox are starting to shed their winter wool coats. Our guide showed us the long metal pick that reminded me of a bigger hair pick that is used to get the wool from the musk ox. The farm folks have to go to the undercoat and slowly comb out the wool. This is done about three to four times per musk ox through the summer, and the underwool is then spun into qiviut for the Natives to knit the hats, scarves, and other items sold at their shop in downtown Anchorage. The long process of harvesting the musk oxen underwool along with the processing it into yarn and the long hours of making products for sale is why it is so expensive to buy qiviut products, but looking at them makes one envy the talents of these native women. The musk ox do not stink as bad as a cow or other livestock and the wool gets a light wash before being made into qiviut. As we were walking along the farm, you could not smell the musk ox except for a faint smell. Musk ox also do not have musk oil glands that would give them a more pungent smell. During our tour, I walked next to our guide as she spoke and asked her questions as she picked up clumps of musk ox wool that would be used for the spinning process. Nothing goes to waste on this farm.
Our guide kept the tour to the half-hour we were granted at the beginning due to feeding times and other chores that needed to be done on the farm. She told us that they were having a raffle of a qiviut afghan that the native women had knit that was worth $10,000, and for $5 a ticket, I felt that was worth the cause to keep the musk ox farm going. The drawing is in October, and if I win the afghan, I will not be putting it on my bed for Amanda and Marty to roughhouse on or teethe on. If I had my way, it would be under bulletproof glass with armed guards in the house!
Tours of the Musk Ox Farm are conducted from 10-6 seven days a week from the end of May to August, but special September tours are available by reservation. Admission tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for children and children under 4 can get in for free. You cannot touch the musk ox during the tour and you must not wander from the group at anytime or disturb the musk oxen's routine If you ever are in the Palmer area during the summer, this is a must see and educational experience for all wanting to learn about one of the history of this magnificent beast.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 25, 2010
Musk Ox Farm
12850 E. Archie Road
907 745 4151
Larissa and I met Ed, who is a big outdoorsman who likes to hike and big game hunt, at his house, and we were warmly greeted by Ed and his dog Katie, an overweight 10-year-old Australian Shepherd. HMM! I used to go on adventures with another overweight 10-year-old dog named Katie in Idaho. Will this Katie be as rambunctious as my late great Katie was or would she be a mellower Katie?
So Larissa, Ed, Katie and I got in to his truck for the 40-mile trip to the Matanaska-Sustina Valley which is known as the Mat-Su Valley by Alaskans and is home to the towns of Palmer and Wasilla (yes that Wasilla where what's her name comes from). Along the way we get to know each other, and I find out that Ed likes to go big game hunting in some of the most remote areas of Alaska. "Great!", I think to myself, I am going to be stuck in the truck with Alaska's answer to Ted Nugent all day, but being a hunter aside, Ed turned out to be a really nice guy and the entire day with him was the best time of my entire trip with or without the camera.
Larissa, Ed, Katie, and I arrived in Palmer about an hour after leaving Anchorage, and we went to a Subway to get lunch for our picnic. Turned out we would not be able to go to Hatcher Pass, the 12-mile mountain pass in the Talkeetna Mountains, because snow was still blocking the road leading up to it. Oh well, we would be going to the Musk Ox Farm and to the Independence Gold Mine, a pre-WWII gold mine that is now listed in the 1974 National Register of Historic Places.
Palmer is the jumping off point to these places, and it's history dates from way before the white folks discovered it. The area in the Mat-su Valley near Palmer was settled by the Athabascan and Dena'na tribes. When the Russians arrived in Alaska in 1741 and discovered the Mat-Su Valley, they established a fur trade with the Natives. After the United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1767, many Russians left Palmer but the fur trade continued with Alaska's new owners.
Palmer is named for George W. Palmer, a pioneer to Alaska who built a trading post on the Matanaska River in the late 19th century. It was also at this time, the US Government takes interest in the rich coal reserves near Palmer, but mining the coal didn't take place until 1914 after the construction of the Alaska Railroad was completed. Palmer's Post Office opened in 1917.During the Great Depression in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Matanaska Colony by sending 203 families from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to the Mat-Su Valley to establish homesteads near Palmer. The families were given 40 acres of land to farm, but most of the farms were unsuccessful, but several of the families stayed in Palmer and their descendants still live in the area today.
Larissa, Ed, Katie, and I got our sandwiches from Subway and took them to a scenic part of the Matanaska River where we ate them hearing the sound of the rolling rapids going downriver. Stay tuned for my next journal on the Musk Ox farm near Palmer.
Restaurant | "Pricey and Mediocre Dining Option In Girdwood"
Too bad I didn't have a sneak preview of Chair 5's menu before coming here because I got a serious case of sticker shock when I opened it to the dinner entrees. The cheapest thing on the menu was the Halibut Burger for $12.50 and then it all went downhill from there. Entrees were between $25-$40 and I am on a tight budget for this vacation. There is pizza on the menu but I am not in the mood for any pizza, and so I settle for the Halibut Burger with fries and water to drink. Larissa got the Thai Peanut Penne dish for her dinner with shrimp and other seafood for $28.50.
After placing our order with our not-so-talkative waiter, I look around my surroundings. There is a nice stained glass window in the front of the restaurant worth looking at, but some of the art on the walls is a not-so appealing. There is a print of someone killing wolves near our table facing me, and I had to spend the rest of the time in Chair 5 averting the picture. It bothered me a lot, and I wondered if the person in the print was related to Sarah Palin, who has been known to hunt poor defenseless critters from a helicopter for sport. UGH! Very unappetizing.
Our food arrived, and I must say my halibut burger was good. The halibut was grilled in a lime marinade and on a whole-grain bun with tartar sauce, red onion, lettuce, tomato, and pickle. Larissa said her penne pasta dish was good, and she wound up taking some of hers home because the portion was kind of big. All in all the dining experience was good, but the atmosphere seemed stuffy, and that picture of the dead wolves needs to be replaced with a Georgia O'Keefe poster or something more appealing.
My dinner cost me $12.50 plus tip. Larissa and I left Chair 5 full for the time being, but I don't think I would want to go back there for dinner again and look for a less-expensive option in Anchorage for dinner.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on August 20, 2010
Chair 5 Restaurant
5 Linblad Street
Seventeen years later in the winter of 1925, the Iditarod Trail became famous for humanitarian reasons. A diptheria epidemic had raged through Nome during the Winter of 1925 killing many residents including young children. A diptheria serum was needed in Nome immediately, but due to the ports on the Bering Sea leading into Nome were closed due to ice, the only way to get the serum to Nome was by train and dog sled. But there was no train service to Nome in 1925, so the serum had to travel from Anchorage to Nenana near Fairbanks by train along the Alaska Railroad and then go the remaining 674 miles from Nenana to Nome by dog sled. The Nome Serum Run saved hundreds of lives in Nome from the deadly diptheria outbreak and was the inspiration for the annual Iditarod Sled Race from Anchorage to Nome that runs every March in honor of this valiant run to save lives.
Larissa and I didn't travel the entire thousand-mile route to Nome that day. We just did about two miles of the trail near the Mount Alyeska Ski Resort enjoying the wood bridges, fresh air, mountain vistas and floral and fauna that lined our path. There was still snow on the ground in late-May, but that didn't stop Larissa and I from enjoying our little hike. I had Larissa take a couple of pictures of me throwing snowballs in the air. From what I see of my form and lack of great distance, I don't think the Red Sox will be calling me anytime soon. Did you know that 2001, 2004, and 2007 baseball and World Series hero Curt Schilling (yeah, that guy with the most famous bloody sock in the world!) was born in Alaska to a US Army soldier and his wife? I couldn't resist getting that fact into this journal entry.
It is free to hike the Iditarod Trail anywhere you pick it up in Alaska, but make sure you wear good hiking boots or shoes and drink lots of water along the way. Make sure your camera is ready to go too because you will get some beautiful shots of Mount Alyeska and other natural beauty along the way.
Attraction | "Girdwood, Alaska: Originally Known as Glacier City"
Girdwood was originally known as Glacier City when it was founded as a supply camp for placer gold miners in the late 19th Century. In 1896, Glacier City's name was changed to Girdwood after a Scottish-Irish entrempeneur by the name of James Girdwood, who had staked the first four placer gold claims in the area.
After gold prospects dried up in Girdwood, it wasn't much of a place to visit, and the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake destroyed much of the original town. When they rebuilt Girdwood, they moved the town 2 1/2 miles up the valley since the original town of Girdwood was below the high tide mark and was vulnerable to more tsunamis and earthquake destruction.
Girdwood has now become a world class ski resort with the construction of the Alyeska Ski Resort on nearby Mount Alyeska. Larissa and I parked the car here and went inside the resort to use the restroom and browze around the resort's shop and lobby. It is a beautifully built place, but you would have to win the lottery to afford to stay here or shop in the little stores. It's bloody expensive. It was late-May and since Girdwood is about 3,500 feet above sea level, there was still snow on the ground.
Girdwood was also the home to former Senator Ted Stevens, the longest serving Senator from Alaska who recently died in a plane crash near Bristol Bay, and Tommy Moe, the Olympic (1994 Lillehammer Games) gold and silver medal skiier. Girdwood is also home to the Iditarod Trail near Mount Alyeska Ski Resort and the northernmost rain forest in the world.
I wasn't really impressed by Girdwood but it was worth a couple of hours to check it out and see what it was all about and satisfy my curiousity and throw a couple of snowballs.
Alyeska Ski Resort
1000 Arlberg Drive
Girdwood, Alaska 99587