May 9, 2016

April Travels – Part One – Philadelphia

Filed under: Family,Outside AK — Susan Stevenson @ 6:17 am


Happy Retirement to my husband!

There have been some big changes in our life over the last few weeks. We have now entered the next chapter. Steve is officially retired from work! We have been discussing retirement quite a bit over the last year especially. Our original plan was to wait until Steve turns 62 (December) so that he could start collecting Social Security. But the more we talked about it, the more we decided that there really wasn’t a reason to wait until December.

Once plans were finalized for our month-long trip “outside” or to the “lower 48”, the more we wanted to just move on with our lives. For insurance purposes, Steve went back to work for one day this month so that we could carry our insurance another month and take care of last minute exams, etc. But now he is done. I have a “honey do” list in my head that needs to be put to paper, but I want him to just focus on relaxing right now. He deserves a little down time before we both get to work tending to the house.

As for me, I am not retiring. Fortunately, I set my own hours so I will still be able to focus on us and our growing family. And I could never give up photography! But I suspect I won’t be working as many hours as I do now – especially when we get our new camper and begin traveling the road for longer periods of time.  More about that to come.


We spent the entire month of April traveling. The first 11 days were spent in Philadelphia with family and friends. My sons and their gals also visited Philly while we were there, so it was a true family reunion. The kids were only able to stay for a long weekend, but it was wonderful to have them for even that short a time. They really enjoyed seeing their aunts and uncles and their cousins, as it had been more than 5 years. And everyone was thrilled to see Brandon and Chris, to see Becky’s growing belly, and to finally meet Chris’ fiancee, Kimberly.

We then traveled to Washington DC (Arlington) for 5 days. Steve and I took Amtrak, and two of my brothers and their wife/gf drove down a day later. We all enjoyed the Smithsonian Museums, the Veteran Memorial Parks, and visiting Arlington National Cemetery.

Steve and I then boarded Amtrak for the first leg of our trip across the country. We rode the rails from DC to South Bend, IN, where we stopped for a few days to look at travel trailers and do some RV factory tours (this is where the new camper comes in). We then got back on Amtrak and rode it all the way to Portland, OR.

When we arrived in Portland, we immediately picked up a rental car and made our way to Moses Lake, WA to spend a few days with our friends Randy and Celeste (who used to live in AK). It was a lovely drive along the Columbia River Gorge and through so many beautiful agricultural areas. Spending time with dear friends was also very special and I’m so glad we were able to get together.

Steve and I returned to Portland for a few more days. We did several scenic drives, some hiking, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring that part of the state. We have visited OR two other times, and still we look forward to returning and seeing even more. It is such a beautiful place!

We flew back to Fairbanks from Portland – nearly a month after our travels began. Of all that we missed, Raven was the most important. She was being cared for by a friend, but a month is the longest we’ve ever left her with someone else. Things went well, and there was a lot of tail wagging and kisses for both of us. It’s so nice to have our family all together again.

A month of traveling means a lot of photos. I’m slowly making my way through the images I snapped and will be blogging about our travels over the course of several entries. This first entry is about our time in Philadelphia.


Alaska Airlines jet in SeattleSeattle Airport and Mt RainierOur trip got off to a rocky start, when the flight we were scheduled to fly on was cancelled the day before we were to fly. We were originally flying First Class too, so we spent not only more money on the tickets, but also spent some miles to upgrade. The only flight we could get on didn’t have any seats in First Class available, nor did they have seats that were next to each other! Fortunately, we were able to be seated together after boarding. The airline refunded us some airline miles back, but we’re not entirely satisfied with that and will be pursuing it further. Fortunately, the leg between Seattle and Philadelphia was unchanged and we were able to have our First Class seats.


We touched down in Philadelphia before 5pm. Brandon and Becky arrived at around the same time, but in a different terminal. My brother Mike, who works nearby, stopped for them first, before coming for us. At about the same time, I received a text from Chris (who was driving from Madison to Philadelphia) that he was only about an hour outside of Philadelphia. Perfect timing! A call was placed to my sister in law, Diane, to order the cheesesteaks we were having for our first dinner in Philly. There is nothing like an authentic Philly Cheesesteak! They were so delicious!

These photos were taken our first night in town. It was so wonderful to see my brother Steve, my SIL Diane and my niece Rachel, as well as all my kids (Brandon and wife Becky, and Chris and fiancee Kimmie).

Brother Steve Brandon, Becky and Chris in Philly Chris and Kimmie
Pregnant Becky Me and the Kids Diane and my Steve


January 26, 2016

Welcoming The Sun Back

Filed under: Aurora,Everyday Life,Family,Roadtrips,Wildlife — Susan Stevenson @ 10:39 pm

Today, length of visible light is more than 8 hours. It still gets dark by 5pm, but the sky is now beginning to brighten at 9am. Seeing the light earlier in the day is more exhilarating (for me personally), than having it stay light later. The morning light invigorates me to get my day started, which translates into getting a lot more done.

Each day brings an additional 6 1/2 minutes of light. That might not sound like much, but every ten days it translates into an additional hour. The longer days also allow for scenic drives, especially for people like me who have some difficulty with night driving, particularly in areas without street lights.


On Saturday, my friend Amanda and I took a scenic drive down to Donnelly Dome, south of Delta. This hundred mile drive (one way) on the Richardson Hwy is always beautiful as it travels along the Tanana and Delta Rivers, and affords us beautiful views of the Alaska Range (weather permitting). We almost always see wildlife on this drive too, and Saturday’s roadtrip didn’t disappoint.

Orange Sunrise and Open Water on the Tanana RiverAlthough there was a band of low clouds, the sky near the horizon turned a beautiful orange as the sun came up. The snow sparkled in the light, and in some areas there was thick frost on everything, making it look like a scene out of a fairy tale. South of Salcha, the Tanana River runs right next to the road. We could see open water in places, and mist rising above – lit by the morning sun.

When we reached Delta, we decided to check out Clearwater Lake. Clearwater Lake is accessible either via boat launch, where we stopped, or by boat via the Clearwater and Tanana Rivers. This part of the state includes a wide expanse of boreal forests, braided river bottoms, high country tundra, and mountains. There are excellent fishing opportunities, a variety of wildlife – mostly caribou and moose, and breathtaking views all along the Richardson Hwy.

After Clearwater Lake, we drove to the Clearwater River campground. Although we’ve only camped here once – back when we first moved to AK – we do try to stop by to enjoy the clear running river or throw a line in when the salmon are in this part of the state. Someday I think I’d like to kayak the river, as it doesn’t seem too deep or fast moving.

Like the lake, the shoreline of the river had ice buildup. And on top of the ice there were the most amazing frost formations. Much of it had a feathery appearance. The scientific name for this type of frost is “hoar frost”. The Old English dictionary (c. 1290) defines hoarfrost as “expressing the resemblance of white feathers of frost to an old man’s beard.” When water vapor molecules contact a subfreezing surface, such as a blade of grass, they jump directly from the gas state to solid state, leading to a coating of tiny ice crystals. It’s really neat, and also beautiful!

Clearwater Lake, Delta AK Clearwater Lake Frost, Delta AK Clearwater Lake Frost, Delta AK
Clearwater River, Delta AK Clearwater River and Amanda, Delta AK Clearwater River Pano, Delta AK
Clearwater River, Delta AK Clearwater River and Sunlit Trees, Delta AK

We drove back to the Richardson Hwy and continued south, through the center of Delta Junction, and toward Fort Greely Fort Greely serves as an integral part of the Nation’s Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS). Its installation mission is mid-course missile defense. Fort Greely is also host to the military missions of the Cold Regions Test Center, and the Northern Warfare Training Center.

Near Fort Greely, there is a road that takes you to Bolio Lake, which is located within the Donnelly Training Area (military land). Bolio Lake is gorgeous in all seasons, and we decided to drive out to it for photos of the pretty frost and view of the mountains (which unfortunately were obscured by clouds).

All of the vegetation on the shoreline was covered in hoarfrost. As the sun rose behind the mountains, sunbeams spread out across the sky, illuminating the frost and making it sparkle like fairy dust. It’s difficult to capture the sparkles with a camera, unfortunately, but both Amanda and I were mesmerized by the rainbow colors reflected, which we were able to see with our eyes.

Frost and sunshine near Bolio Lake, AK

As we were readying to leave Bolio Lake and make our way back to the highway, an MP (Military Police) pulled up behind us. We figured he would ask us what we were doing on military land, and since we both have military ID cards, we figured all was well. Also, there weren’t any red flags flying – which indicate that training is in session. We’ve driven back to Bolio Lake countless times over the years and were never approached by MPs.

One officer asked us if we had a RAP (Recreational Access Pass) card. Ummmm…. no….. what is that? We told him we were military ID holders, which doesn’t matter. Fortunately, he was nice enough to hand us a brochure highlighting the procedure for obtaining a RAP card (you can do it online, via computer or phone). He also told us how to check in via phone too. When we got back out to the highway, Amanda signed us both up, took screenshots of our RAP cards, and checked us in – as we planned to drive up to Donnelly Dome (also part of the training area).

We saw a moose and her calf while driving up the road that goes to Donnelly Dome. I stopped my car to get a better look, which was a mistake. We were on a moderate, snow covered incline. My car is small and light. When I gave the car gas to continue on my way, the tires just spun where I was. I backed up a little ways and tried again. Same results. I finally backed up about 50 feet to where the road wasn’t as steep and gunned it. My car struggled a little bit, but I finally had enough speed and traction to make the climb. I am so glad our house isn’t in the hills, or I’d never leave the house in winter!

As we came around a bend, just as the road leveled out, we saw caribou running on the left. We swapped out our lenses, and Amanda put her camera on her tripod before inching the car forward for a closer look. We both managed to snap a few frames before the caribou spooked, and started off on a fairly quick run – crossing the road in front of us, and going over a hill, where they disappeared from view. There were at least a dozen in the group. I believe these caribou are part of the Macomb caribou herd.

The Macomb caribou herd ranges from the Delta River east to the Robertson River near Tok. Calving grounds are on the Macomb Plateau south of the Alaska Highway between Delta Junction and Tok. The herd’s winter range depends on snow cover, but the animals are commonly seen from August to May on Donnelly Flats – which is where we spotted them. This herd isn’t the far-ranging caribou herd that comes to mind when many people think of caribou. Travel from summer calving to winter-feeding grounds is generally less than 50 miles. Up to 100 animals commonly winter on the Donnelly Flats, and they feed almost exclusively on birch during the winter.

Caribou at Donnelly Dome

Caribou and Donnelly Dome

Caribou near Donnelly Dome

As we figured, we ran into our MP friends just as we were passing the place where the caribou crossed. We didn’t even wait for them to ask before Amanda volunteered “Do you want to see our RAP cards and check in?!” They laughed, but were glad we followed direction, as not obeying them would have resulted in a $500 fine – EACH!

The views of Donnelly Dome were beautiful from up on the access road. We followed it to the pipeline and continued on to Old Richardson Hwy. This intersection with the Old Rich goes in both directions. Last winter, Steve and I attempted to make a left and follow the road. It ended up turning into a snowmachine trail, which necessitated us having to back up a half mile or so before we could find a place to do a 10 point turn! But turning right is much better, as the road is wider, accessible to motor vehicles, and in this case, was also plowed. By following the road in this direction, it eventually links back up with the Richardson Hwy.

View from Donnelly Dome access road. Donnelly Dome area, Alaska Donnelly Dome and frosted spruce. Frosted Branches, Old Richardson Hwy, Alaska
Donnelly Dome from Old Richardson Hwy, Alaska Donnelly Dome from Old Richardson Hwy, pano Donnelly Dome from Old Richardson Hwy, Alaska


December 25, 2015

The BEST Christmas Gift EVER!

Filed under: Aurora,Everyday Life,Family — Susan Stevenson @ 4:39 pm

I didn’t think I’d have an opportunity to make another blog entry before the end of the year, but I just had to share this news!

To say I am thrilled is an understatement! While Steve and I have three grandchildren through his daughter Kayla and his son Eric, this will be my first grandchild through one of my boys and my beautiful daughter-in-love. My youngest son Brandon and his wife Becky are over the moon excited about the new addition to their family. I hope that this is the first of many for my sons and their beautiful wives.

Of course this means I’ll be spending more time in WI in the future, but that falls in line with future goals and plans that Steve and I have been talking about anyway. We’d like to snowbird at some point – at least for a few months each winter. This gives us even more reason to spend a little more time Outside (in the Lower 48). The holidays here are very quiet, which is why I have spent almost every Christmas in Wisconsin with my sons. As snowbirds, we’ll be able to also see Steve’s kids, and perhaps even our siblings, more often.

I wish I was closer during this time, so that I could see Becky grow big with her pregnancy, but I will just have to be content with photo updates over the next 8 months.

Congratulations Brandon and Becky!!! We love you!