Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mile High Pass Coyotes

Taking advantage of the absurdly warm temperatures today, we hiked one of our usual trails, Mile High Pass. When we got to the pass we turned west, rather than our usual east and were lucky enough to see four coyotes ahead of us on the ridge. They watched us climb for a while, howled at us, and then took off.

Neither Ryan nor I have ever seen coyotes around here, but we did hear a few of them while hiking in Arctic Valley recently. We were just there at a lucky time today. It was clear from the footprints in the mud that another person had been up there earlier in the day, but had come and gone before we started around noon. While we were on the summit two other groups of people arrived, non of which got to see the coyotes.

The iPhone doesn't do much for distance shots, but you can get an idea of how the leader of the pack was watching us as we climbed the ridge.

Coyote under the red arrow and Teddy the dog finally noticing the canine strangers
zoomed in so you can see the coyote

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Eagle River Walk

View up Eagle River Valley from our front yard
We have an incredible stretch over the last five days of sun and really cold [for Anchorage] temps. The highs this week were in the single digits and the lows just below zero. Today my digital thermometer said it got up to 25 at our house, but there was a little breeze that made it a bit nippy. Our regular thermometer seemed pretty confused by solar radiation because it was showing 55 degrees, which it most definitely was not.

Even though there's ice and a bit of snow around the river, it does not look wintery at all in most of Anchorage and Eagle River. I have had serious cognitive dissidence all week every time I look outside because it is SO sunny, light until 8:00 at night, and there is almost no snow. There isn't even any frost, it is so dry. What I see and what I know is true (that's is really cold), just do not compute.

The run is almost over though, in a couple of days it's supposed to be 46 degrees and raining. However, I took advantage of the chance to wear my knee-length down jacket which has only come out of the closet one other time this winter.

The trail from the river to the condos
One of the annoying things about the lack of snow and these weird freeze/thaw cycles is that many of the trails are glare ice, even where the surrounding forest is snow-free. If there wasn't so much ice, I'd like to be out trail running.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hotel Reviews in Europe

Our trip to London and Italy was one of the few times we have ever reserved accommodations ahead of time on our travels. Usually we fly by the seat of our pants and rely pretty heavily on guide books, but there is so much information out there on the internet it seemed like a shame not to use it. As everyone knows, you do have to read online reviews with a grain of salt. We certainly stay on the budget side of things, so you do sometimes have to be careful not to end up in a place that has pay by the hour rates or is just plain old crappy. For many of the budget hotels we looked at in Italy, some of the negative reviews really cracked me up. There were three recurring complaints, which based on the language, were mostly written by Europeans:

  1. The room was small. I can't believe this is something budget travelers complain about.
  2. Did not have a lift (or lift was broken). Buildings in Europe are OLD (to Americans). This should not surprise anyone.
  3. Breakfast did not have: eggs, ham, fresh fruit, yogurt, you name it, European budget travelers are apparently quite picky about their complimentary breakfast. My FAVORITE breakfast complaint review was "The breakfast was not very good, although not as bad as American hotel."
The reviews just cracked me up because I wanted to say to every single one of them "WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FOR $37/NIGHT??" Obviously, none of these things bother us. We travel with backpacks, it hardly matters if the room is larger than a double bed or that we have to carry our bags up a few flights of stairs. Breakfast? Total bonus. Also, breakfast is a cheap meal if you do have to eat out.

The things that I do take note of in reviews are things like: the toilet/window/lock was broken and the hotel staff couldn't/wouldn't fix it or things about terrible customer service. Those are deal breakers for me.

The hotel we stayed at in London had worn out carpet and furnishings, but you know what? It was completely perfect for the price we paid, given that it was two blocks away from the South Kensington Tube Station (it didn't hurt that they upgraded us to a nicer room for free - it gets 5 stars for customer service from me).

In Venice I found a heck of a deal on I ended up on some booking website that I was only 50% convinced was legit. But, turned out it was and we got a pretty nice room, a Jacuzzi tub, and breakfast (eggs, ham, yogurt, and fresh fruit included!) for what we paid for okay places in other cities.

I'm not sure if we'll book ahead again in the future or go back to flying by the seat of our pants, but it turned out well for Italy (some places we only booked a day or two ahead).

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hiking in the Sun and Fog

This morning Eagle River was completed socked-in, but it's not unusual for it to be foggy here in the morning and then burn off and get sunny. We decided to take our chances in Arctic Valley for a hike, but it was foggy there too...until we were almost at the trail head we broke out into the sun and it was crystal clear. They valley floor still had fog though, and the trail took us right down into it. We spent the day hiking in and out of the fog as it rolled in and out of the valley. When we got home to Eagle River, it was still socked-in. I don't think it ever cleared.

On a day like today, how can you not love this place?? We even heard coyotes howling while we were out hiking.

Of course, we still cannot believe how non-wintery it is. Plants are starting to bud out and that is never good in March in Alaska. As far as hiking goes, I think this is the spring that will drag on forever.

fog rolling in

fog lifting!

All clear! (briefly)

fog rolling in again

fog in the valley floor as we hiked out

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Too Warm

Echo Bend of Eagle River
 The day we got back from Italy it was cold in Anchorage (single digits) but then it rapidly warmed up and the little snow we had has been melting away and the trails have turned into ice. Today in particular it was absurdly warm. Anchorage set a high record today at 47F. I went hiking in a long sleeve shirt with no jacket and no hat and I was hot.

At our house there is still a little snow on the ground, but out on the Eagle River Nature Center Trails there isn't a speck. Plenty of ice on the trail, but no snow.

I keep thinking that it looks and feels a lot more like a Kodiak winter than an Anchorage one, but Kodiak is even warmer this year.

Ann Marie and I at Echo Bend
*only hikeable with ice cleats!

Not a speck of snow

Echo Lake - lots of water on top of the ice

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Italy in Photos

The Amalfi Coast
This was our first big trip on which we did not take a dedicated camera; we only took our iPhones. With technology merging so much recently, it seemed silly to carry around our point-and-shoot camera when we both have fairly decent cameras on our phones, especially my iPhone 6. And, without a laptop or tablet, the only way we could upload photos to the blog or facebook was from our phones anyway. And what good is a vacation without a barrage of facebook photos??? Just kidding. Sort of.

I definitely do not like to take our DSLR camera (and all the lenses) on vacations unless photography is one of the main focuses of the trip. Besides being heavy and bulky, I don't like to have to worry about it being stolen.

I was surprised at how many tourists we did see in Italy using DSLR cameras. Most people were using their phones, but I actually saw a few with point-and-shoot cameras as well. That's what surprised me the most!

There are some things the iPhone camera is not great for, like distant scenery. On the other hand, I use the panorama feature frequently and love that it can give you a quasi-wide angle shot. The iPhone also does quite well in low-light settings (for a point-and-shoot type camera) and it takes nice silhouettes. These are my favorite [mostly] non-people photos from our trip:

I know I messed the Panorama up a bit, but I like the dramatic lighting of the Colloseum on this gloomy morning right before it hailed

Palatine Hill with a storm rolling in
A window into the past in Verona
Sunny Florence
Venitian Glass Chandelier
Matera - I know it's not in focus, but the photo still captures the feel

The Amalfi Coast

And, just for fun:

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

More High Tide Photos

Venice is a city that has adapted to life surrounded by water. With no cars within the city everything comes and goes by boat. It's been interesting to see the various types of boats transporting everything from ice cream to construction debris. Equally impressive are the skilled hand truck divers who cart material down the city walk ways. These folks have to navigate narrow and crowded walk ways and bridges that infrequently have ramps. Adding a high tide probably just makes it that job even more challenging.

High tide in Venice

San Marco Piazza

Flooded shoreline


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The Grand Canal

We are in Venice and just happened to be here during some extreme high tides - when parts of the city flood. Yesterday morning it was high when we left our hotel but we weren't going far and we managed to get there without getting our feet wet by just taking a longer route. This morning though it was even higher and we only got a few minutes down the streets before we realized we weren't going anywhere without rubber boots. There are street vendors selling rubber over-boots everywhere, but we really didn't want to buy something we'd only be using for about 20 minutes to get where we were going (by the time we'd be done the tide would be going out). We are staying in a fairly nice hotel so we thought there was a chance the hotel might provide boots. We were right - they had a big box full of cheap rubber boots in a variety of sizes. Some didn't match; Ryan ended up with one green and one black boot, but they were the same size. But they were the right price and we didn't want to wait until the tide went down because the museum we were going to is only open in the morning.

On the busier streets they put up raised walkways during the high tides, but the problem was just getting from our hotel to the walkways. It's crazy to see water on city streets, in squares and even inside businesses. But they all just seem to have adapted to dealing with it.

Other highlights in Venice include enjoying the amazing glasswork (even though the glass museum is sadly closed this week), enjoying hot mulled wine and sangria where open container laws don't exist and window shopping.

Enjoying hot Sangria

Glass chandelier at the Correr Museum

High tide

Ryan on a raised walkway at the entrance to San Marco basilica

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Sunday, February 1, 2015


Today we checked the Colloseum off our list of things you don't go to Italy and not see. I am really glad we got there early (20 min before it opened), because the line was absurd by the time we left. Coincidentally, all archaeological sites and national museums are free on the last Sunday of the month, so maybe it was particularly crazy because of that. Or maybe it's always a zoo.

The Colloseum certainly did not disappoint, but I'd say the best way to describe it was spot-on. It's one of those places that is so famous you can't not know what it's about or what it looks like before you arrive. It is certainly an impressive structure but the only real surprise for me was how deep the underground portion is.

We also toured the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, also impressive but the real highlight for me was seeing Livia's house. I'm reading a biography right now of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus Caesar. One of the houses at Palatine Hill was supposedly hers and is quite well-preserved (although not exactly photogenic). It's always nice to connect a specific bit of history (and a person) to some actually archaeology, especially over 2000 years!

The real highlight of our day was a visit to the baths of Caracalla. Our guidebook called these some of the most impressive ruins in Rome but other than that I did not know what to expect.

The guidebook did not lie. We were completely blown away by the scale of the baths and how much of the structure is still standing. They were built in about AD 200 and about 6000-8000 people used them per day when they were in use.

Best of all there was almost no one there. Another (free on first Sunday) off-the-beaten-path find!

Palatine Hill

Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla

Olympics sized swimming pool at the baths of Caracalla

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