|Our drive from Valdez toward Palmer, in the rain (what else!), was uneventful. We had fun seeing several sights that we’d seen twice before in different weather conditions and knowing that we’d probably gotten there at the best time. We took the Richardson Highway back north from Valdez (once again stopping to marvel at the Bridal Veil Falls) and, again, Thompson Pass. The recorded record snowfall at Thompson Pass is mind-boggling: 974.5 (can’t forget that last half-inch) inches for a season, 298 inches for a month and 62 inches for a 24 hour period, all happening in the winter of 1952-53. When we went through there on this trip it was seriously foggy, with visibility down to 100 yards or less, but it cleared up in a short distance. Turning west on the Glenn Highway, we topped off our fuel tanks in Glennallen (Brian is keeping watch on fuel prices on the internet and tries to aim us at the cheapest along our route) and continued on with the Chugach Mountains to our left (south) – we think. We couldn’t actually see much because by the time we got to this part of the drive the clouds were quite low and it was raining pretty steadily. Aside from a stretch of bumpy and rough road, the road was actually pretty good.
Our campground, although having a post office address of Palmer, is actually about 60 miles east of Palmer, quite close to the Matanuska Glacier, “the largest glacier in Alaska accessible by car” (so says Milepost Magazine, quoting someone else!). We got settled in to our sites but elected not to go out again that day because of the weather which, by that time, was downright nasty.
Our second day in not-quite-Palmer, we decided to drive into actual Palmer, defying the rain and hoping for a let-up, although not expecting anything like actual sunshine! And we weren’t disappointed!
Palmer is on the outer edges of the commuting radius for Anchorage and looks like lots of bedroom communities in other areas. The town and surrounding areas have long been known as a fruitful agricultural area and in the mid-30’s, as part of a New Deal program to assist Dust Bowl refugees, the Matanuska Valley Colony was established. Farm families, primarily from the upper Midwest (it was thought that those of Scandinavian descent would be most likely to be able to handle the long cold winters of Alaska) were moved in and encouraged to establish farms in the area. Although many of the families who were part of the Colony failed and moved away, there are still descendants of the successful farmers in the area and the agricultural base is still an important part of the economy of the Matanuska Valley. They are very proud of the giant vegetables and other plants (the product of a short but intense growing season) that are a feature of the annual Alaska State Fair, held in Palmer every Fall.
On the way we had good views of the Matanuska Glacier, but we decided to wait until Wednesday, when clearer weather for at least part of the day is forecast, to go for a close visit.
We visited the Visitors’ Center in Palmer and spent lots of time wandering around the demonstration garden on the grounds there, marveling at the flowers (sparkling with raindrops) and other plants that will be more fully in bloom in a month or so. We will probably come back here when we re-visit the area on our way from the Kenai Peninsula northward. We elected not to take the 20-mile drive out to the Independence Mine Park, although we had wanted to, because of the rain. Much of the park is best experienced on foot, using trails that are uncomfortable, if not hazardous, in the rain and mud. Another experience to be deferred to a second visit.
After a stop at a local bookstore (always a good time for us – and a chance to support an independent bookstore) we drove to Wasilla, a town just north of Palmer which has been described as a giant strip mall. I have to say I don’t disagree with that characterization, although there’s a lot to be said for the availability of large shopping areas after a couple of weeks in areas with limited availability of goods. We are, however, going to be in Anchorage in a couple of days, so, aside from a quick stop at a Fred Meyer grocery (and more) store, we didn’t detour to the Wasilla stores. We did stop for lunch at a nice restaurant there and had wonderful smoked salmon Caesar salad – we look forward to much more salmon, smoked and otherwise, as we go along. Yum!
When we got back from Palmer we had a Max-scare. As those of you who are owned by cats (and certainly those who travel with them) can attest, cats can make themselves scarcer than any animal I know. We have a built-in kitty bathroom in our “basement” storage area, accessible by the cats down a ramp from a hole in the wall in our living area. To clean the litter box one has to open a small door in the compartment that opens into the storage area. Normally we (OK, Ian – the litter box is his job!) are careful not to leave the door open during the operation of cleaning and replacing the litter in the box. But this time, after the cleaning job was completed, Max was nowhere to be found. We searched every nook and cranny (we’re pretty good at finding all the hiding places by now) in the living area and couldn’t find him anywhere. We even looked in the storage area – twice – and . . . . no Max. We looked everywhere outside and were forced to conclude that he had slipped out of the trailer and was outside somewhere. We figured he would come to the door when he was cold and wet enough (he’s basically a comfort-loving indoor cat, although he likes to think of himself as a great adventurer), so we left the outside door open so we would know when he did. Before that, however, we decided to look once again in the storage compartment and (you saw this coming, didn’t you?) there he was, sitting on top of the folding lawn chairs. Needless to say, he got alternate hugs and scolds (neither of which he understood the reason for) and we will be more careful with the kitty bathroom door from now on.
On Wednesday, when the clouds lifted and we could see actual blue sky, we drove a couple of miles to see the Matanuska Glacier. From the road you can see that it’s a very long glacier (24 miles) that snakes through a valley. We went down a winding road to an area where you can (for $12.50 each) drive to a parking lot that is a short walk from the glacier itself. Along the walk you can see areas where the glacier has melted and re-iced, trapping dirt and other debris under the ice. Photos don’t adequately capture the intriguing textures and sparkle of the ice crystals, but the blue cast of the glacier comes through more in the photos than we could see in person. After a short time taking pictures and fighting the wind (which had an icy bite to it), we hiked back to the truck. As we looked back we could see some intrepid souls rappelling down the ice.
We move on Thursday to Anchorage, with a chance to do some “town” errands as well as see some of the sights of Alaska’s largest city.