It’s finally here! I am officially retired! Today was my final “work day”, although just between you and me, I didn’t do ANY work today. Instead, I spent the morning packing final things from my office and sending farewell greetings and thank you notes to my co-workers for all the cards, gifts and good wishes they had poured on me. Then at 11:15, I had a phone exit interview with HR in Santa Clara, CA and went over my termination paper work. Everything took about 10 minutes and I was done. I walked around to say good-bye to my team, handed my laptop and badge to my manager and he walked me out the door. Home by 12:30.

On my way home, a car was driving below the speed limit in front of me. I started to pull around it, but then caught myself and said, “What’s the hurry?” I want that to be my mantra for the next ~30 years. I was slightly annoyed to drive through so many school zones! I never go out after I have arrived at the office at 7:00 until I head home at 4:00, so I have not had to deal with those much. I guess I’ll be looking for routes that are not near schools on weekdays from now on, in case I forget my new mantra.

I’ve outlined my very loose and flexible plans on my RV blog, so take a look over there if you’re wondering when my first trip will be.

And now, I think I’ll go take a nap!

I went to Orlando last week with Carrie and the two boys. We stayed in a condo just a couple of miles from Universal Studios on Brian and Carrie’s time share, and Brian used his frequent flyer miles to buy all four of our tickets. I paid for the rental car and parking at Universal and Walt Disney World all week; it was the least I could do for an otherwise free trip to Florida!

I had heard about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando, and being a Harry Potter fan, I was very excited about visiting. Universal is split into two parks: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Really, it’s just a way to get more of your money, as you have to pay for admission into each park, or upgrade your daily ticket to a “park hopper”. There is a HP World in both parks and the Hogwarts Express runs between them. London and Diagon Alley resides in Universal Studios, and Hogwarts and Hogsmeade is in Islands of Adventure. Of course, you have to buy a park hopper ticket to ride the train.  We splurged for the park hoppers, and got the whole experience.

The London area is very obvious and easy to get to in the park, but the entry into Diagon Alley is well hidden, and the staff is no help in getting you there. They play the part of muggles, and claim to know nothing about Diagon Alley or Platform 9 3/4. But if you follow the crowd, you’ll find it easy enough. The moment you walk through the brick maze entrance, you are suddenly in the midst of the magical land. It’s amazingly well done, with many details from the books and movies incorporated into the village.

The boys visited Olivander’s Wand shop and got an magical wand. It  has a chip inside and interacts with dozens of spots throughout both villages, as you cast spells, charms and hexes on unsuspecting animatronics.

We visited Knockturn Alley and Gringotts Bank, where there is a dragon perched atop the building that blows fire from time to time. You never know when it’s going to happen, because she is alive after all and does it whenever she wants to, according to a cast member outside a store.

We ate one dinner in the Leaky Cauldron and had a mug of butter beer (non-alcoholic). We also bought candy at Honeydukes to bring home.

Our favorite rides were Escape from Gringotts, the Forbidden Journey at Hogwarts, the Flight of the Hippogriff, and the Hogwarts Express. Nathan loved the Dragon Challenge, a wild roller coaster with 3 or 4 upside down loops. Universal has done an amazing job on their 4D rides. It’s hard to explain, but it’s sort of like riding a coaster cart through several 3D theater scenes. We agreed Disney needs to step up their technology, and we won’t be surprised if the new rides at Star Wars Land will incorporate this 4D style.

Harry Potter is not the only featured attraction at Universal. There are many other land themes throughout the 2 parks, including Jurassic Park, Marvel Spiderman and Transformers, Poseidon, Dr Suess, Cartoons, Simpsons, Minions, and more, and we took them all in, some of them twice.

The boys on the Pteranodon Flyers.

There is a very cute Toonland, featuring old comic strip favorites.

My last trip to Walt Disney World was in 2011, so it was a lot of fun to get reacquainted with the parks and ride Snow White’s Mine Train, a new attraction since my last visit. We spent three days at Universal, and four days at Walt Disney World, We had already purchased 3-day WDW park hoppers, but traded them in for 4-day one park tickets, and agreed it was actually a better way to see the “World”. Hopping from park to park takes a lot of time and energy out of your day.

In Animal Kingdom

On my favorite ride, the People Mover.

Good night, Cinderella!

It was a really fun trip. I am a big fan of Disney and theme parks and this was a great diversion from my short-timer’s disease at work. Once I came back, I started my 4 week countdown to retirement!

I left off in the last post when our cruise ship arrived in the port of Seward Alaska, and we disembarked. There were three nice buses waiting for our group (who had been joined by several stragglers to fill in the extra seats) and we headed north across the Kenai peninsula, around Turnagain Arm and into Anchorage just in time for lunch.

I had made arrangements to meet Ken’s sister Tami downtown near our bus stop, and she picked up Alice and me from the rainy sidewalk and drove to a little diner. We had a lovely lunch together, catching up on family news and us giving her a recap of our trip so far. It was too short a time, but our bus was leaving just an hour and a half later for Denali, so we had to say goodbye.

The bus drove north on Route 3 through Wasilla, the fastest growing city in Alaska, toward Denali National Park and arrived at the Denali Wilderness Lodge just about dinner time. We were on our own for all our meals once we left the ship, so Alice and I took a shuttle to a small town a few miles away and ate at Prospectors Pizzaria and Alehouse, home of 49 beers for the 49th state. Neither Alice nor I are beer drinkers much, but we wanted to try one. We asked the waitress for a recommendation and she brought us three samples. Of the three, we both loved the Raspberry Framboise, and got a pint of that. It even came in these lovely glasses!

Back in our room, we had to get maintenance to come close a jammed window because it was … yep, you guessed it … COLD and RAINY out! We settled in for the night with dreams of visiting one of the most beautiful and pristine wilderness parks on earth. The next morning we boarded a shuttle bus for the three hour tour into Denali National Park.

We had high hopes of seeing some wildlife and kept our eyes peeled. Alas, it was not to be. We did see a beaver dam, but it was on the wrong side of the bus, so I didn’t get a photo.  We also had hopes of seeing the High One (or Great One), but the clouds and rain obscured any views of the manificent mountain. Luckily, this wasn’t my first trip to Alaska, and I have seen the beautiful peaks before, but I was disappointed that many in our tour group likely missed their only chance.

However, the bus driver did double duty as tour narrator and had many interesting things to say and point out to us.

  • While Mt. McKinley is not the highest mountain, it is the tallest one in the world when measured from base to peak.
  • Only 55 wolves live in the park.
  • President McKinley never visited Alaska!
  • And this guide wasn’t the first to point out that Alaska has three seasons: Winter, Still Winter, and Road Construction.

The best part of the tour was shortly before our turn-around point where he stopped in a pull-out and an Athabascan woman boarded the bus to give a short talk about the history of her people. She was fascinating, funny and poignant as she related how her great grandfather was responsible for negotiating the Alaska Native Corporation with the federal government. Athabascans are Navajos and live in the interior of Alaska, around Denali. She proudly announced she is a grandmother to “10 little Indians”. :)

That afternoon, we rode the Wilderness Express glass dome train from Denali to Fairbanks.

Brian Matlock photobombed us!

Yes, it rained most of the way.

Going over a beautiful bridge

We arrived at Fairbanks to find our bus waiting to escort us to the Pikes Waterfront Lodge, where we would spend our final two nights of the excursion.

(Pictures taken with different cameras.)

We awoke on day 10 to find (what else?) … rain! But we trudged on anyway. First stop, Gold Dredge 8. First, we viewed an exhibit of the Alyeska Pipeline, and heard about it’s construction and safety features.

Then we took a little shuttle tour of the old dredge, learning about the Alaska gold rush, and how a dredge differs from a gold mine. We explored the old dredge camp and saw the equipment, and then panned for gold! I got the most of anyone in the group, finding $24 worth in my bag of dirt. It was cheesy, but fun, and I highly suspect they do very well on selling a bunch of jewelry to show off your “nuggets”.

After lunch on our own, we boarded the Riverboat Discovery III for a cruise down the Chena River. We watched a float plane take off and land on the river and learned that one out of every 60 Alaskans is a pilot. We floated past a house Ronald and Nancy Reagan stayed at while Air Force One was being refueled.

If you’d like to read about the fascinating life of the first woman to win the Iditorad multiple consecutive times, check out Susan Butcher’s story. She died in 2006 from cancer, but her legacy lives on at her home and kennel where her husband and two daughters carry on a tradition of raising and racing sled dogs. The riverboat stopped in front of her home and her husband did a demo of some of his top dogs pulling a small tractor around a track.

You can see the tractor in the background and the team of dogs getting harnessed up.

Dog houses lined up along the river front.

Susan’s famous lead dog, Granite

As we continued on down the river, we saw where the Chena meets the Tenana, and the difference in the waters. The Tenana is filled with glacier silt and you can see how muddy it appears beside the clearer Chena water.

It wasn’t long before someone yelled out “Moose!” They were wrong; it was caribou, but we all moved to the right side of the boat to get a look. It turned out to be captured caribou, and they were let loose to run down to the riverbank just as we floated past. But just look at the rack on that big fellow! Amazing, especially when you realize they shed their antlers every year and regrow new ones. That means this guy has sprouted these beauties in the past 12 months.

Before our return to the dock, we disembarked for a tour of a primitive Athabascan village demonstration. The tour guide was a high school girl and she did an excellent job of showing off her heritage and modeling this beautiful fur parka. It is made of muskrat, wolf and wolverine pelts, took six months to make and is worth $20,000.

A beautiful wolf pelt

The natives were basket weavers

I bet it’s warm!

That evening, Alice and I had our last dinner together, as she left early the next morning. My flight didn’t leave until 8:00 p.m., so I had one final day in Fairbanks on my own. Guess what? It wasn’t raining! I rode a shuttle into downtown and meandered through the Morris Thompson Visitor’s Center, ate at the Fudge Pot (a popular bistro that also sells dozens of flavors of fudge), and walked a couple of miles to Pioneer Park and back before heading to the airport.

The sun tried to peak through. See that tiny bit of blue sky?

The Antler Arch
Made of 100 various antlers

A public railing proudly displays a favorite Alaskan pastime

As my flight took off over Fairbanks, I finally got my look at Denali, proudly “peaking” above the clouds.

Either this post is going to be very long, or I’m going to have to cut out a lot of the adventures I had. Or I could break it into more than one post. But here goes!

Back in August of 2014, Alice asked Glenda and me if we would be interested in taking a cruise to Alaska with a tour group led by old friend Roy Lawson. Glenda, being from Alaska, gently declined, but it didn’t take me long to get on board with the idea and commit. I’ve never cruised, and an Alaskan one has been on my bucket list. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to travel with a group of friends, and let the tour company handle all the arrangements. Now that it’s over, I would wholeheartedly do this again! It was a fantastic experience, and included many, many details that I would have had to research and handle myself. I’m glad I was able to leave all that to the experts.

The adventure began on Friday, the 10th of July. I got up verrrrry early and called for a 4:00 a.m. Uber pickup to the airport. I flew through S.F. to Vancouver, where we boarded the Radiance of the Seas by Royal Caribbean cruise lines. The first day (evening) we got settled in our cabin, explored the ship, and had our first group dinner in the dining room.

Web Photo

Our cabin

One of the lounges on the ship

Sailing north

We cruised all day the second day, but with cloudy, rainy weather, we didn’t see much from the ship other than water. There were just very brief moments of shore views, but for the most part, we stayed inside enjoying the amenities of the ship. I’m talking FOOD! Cruise ships are notorious for their unending gastronomical  delights, and the Radiance of the Seas was no exception.

The ship won this award last year.

In the dining room one night

On day three, we were woken up by some banging and thumping and we looked out our porthole window to find this:

Our first view of Ketchikan

Yes, we were docked in Ketchikan, and our deck 2 porthole was sorely lacking on the vistas. We quickly dressed and went for breakfast, then left the ship for a bit of a walk around town, stopping into beautiful St. John Episcopal Church, then watching a local fisherman reel in a huge king salmon. Later, we rode the trolley which included a narrated historical tour around the area with a stop at Saxman Totem Pole Village.

Ketchikan behind me

St John’s

What a catch!

Totem pole from the Tlingit tribe

That night we cruised toward Icy Strait Point and the tiny town of Hoonah (pop. 800). The ship anchored off shore at 9:00 on Day four, and we rode the tender boats (the life boats’ most common alternate duty) to the pier. We had no excursions scheduled for that day, so we walked the mile and a half town with several members of our group and watched for whales off shore. We had been told that port was one of the best for whale sighting from land. But we didn’t have any luck while in town. That evening back on the ship during dinner someone called out “Whales!” and everyone ran to the port side windows to see a few black backs swimming by. That was really the extent of our wildlife sighting for most of the trip. A real disappointment.

Hoonah, viewed from the ship

Tender boats

The Radiance at anchor

We woke up on Day five to find the ship already docked in Juneau. Alice and I rode the tramway up the hillside to the Nature Center. We did catch sight of a bald eagle in one of the trees. The rain and fog blocked any views from the mountain, but we walked a (muddy) nature loop trail through the woods back to the center before riding back down.

Juneau, viewed from the ship

Our view from the tramway

Injured captive Bald Eagle. Such a magnificent bird!

On the nature trail above Juneau

Juneau from the Nature Center

That afternoon we took a tour bus to Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier

We learned several tidbits about Juneau and Alaska:

  • Alaska has 70% of all the bald eagles in the US
  • A 13 year old boy designed the AK state flag (it was a contest and his was voted the winner)
  • Juneau capitol building was voted the second ugliest capitol in the US

Mendenhall was  interesting. We listened to a ranger talk about the salmon forest, and that’s when I remembered I had forgotten to take along my National Park Passport Book.

We took one of my favorite excursions on Day 6 in Skagway. We rode a bus to White Pass summit, crossed into Canada and back, and then stopped at a sled dog training camp. The musher has participated in many Iditorad races and placed in the money five times. He did an excellent job on the narrated demonstration. We heard about the life of a musher and what the experience on the race trail is like, and then saw a demo of the dogs pulling the sled. This excursion did not include riding on the sleds, but it did include getting my sunglasses eaten by one of the dogs. (Don’t worry, we got them away from him before he swallowed anything dangerous!)

Some interesting things we learned on this tour:

  • It used to be spelled Skaguay. The name means windy. Population is ~950.
  • RV parks charge $300 a month for a tent space and $1400 a month for a trailer / motor home space.
  • Moore’s Creek Bridge is a stayed cable cantilever bridge. It is only secured to the mountain on one side; that allows it to move during earthquakes.
  • Sled dogs run 6 hours and sleep 6 hours when racing. They race from age 2 to about age 9. They are mutts, not purebreds. They are bred for racing and love to race. They got very excited when the musher brought out the harnesses and started hooking them up to the sled for the demo.

The cantilever bridge

Coming back into Alaska from the Canadian Summit
(It was cold up there!)

Matt, the musher

The dog’s coats, with a removable “fly”. Matt was describing how the dogs pee while they are running.
It was pretty comical!

On day seven, we cruised into Disenchantment Bay right up to Hubbard Glacier and the ship stopped and did a 360° turn. It was spectacular! Hubbard is one of the very few glaciers on earth that is actually advancing; most of them are quickly retreating and disappearing due to climate change on our planet. Hubbard calved many times while we watched, but catching it on a video was very difficult because you never knew when and where the next chunk was going to fall from. The thunderous crack warned us way too late of the direction to look. But we stood out on deck for a long time watching and marveling at the magnificence of nature.

From Disenchantment Bay, we sailed across the open water of the Gulf of Alaska toward our final cruise destination, Seward. This was the only area where we really felt the rolling of the ship, and the seas were quite rough with all the bad weather we were having. Every few minutes the waves would crash against our porthole. I was guessing 30 foot swells, but I was teased for that inaccuracy and told they were more like 3-6 feet. It seemed like I could have stacked at least 4-5 Brian’s in some of those waves.

That afternoon Alice and I went to a talk by the Captain of the ship. (We had to leave early for a meeting of our tour group for disembarkation instructions). He said the Radiance is one of 4 identical ships and is small-medium size. Royal Caribbean has just built a ship (the Oasis of the Seas) that two Radiances would fit inside. The Radiance has 60% of her viewing decks behind windows because she sails to areas with inclement weather. I can tell you we were thankful for those inside areas every day!

We  were lulled by the rocking of the ship all night, and came into Seward at 5:00 a.m. We departed the ship at 9:20. I think this is enough for today’s post. In the next entry, I’ll describe our land excursion from Seward, through Anchorage and Denali, to Fairbanks.

About a year and a half ago I started to a new blog just for writing about my RV. My reason for doing this was that I might start interacting with other RVer’s through the blogging world, and I really didn’t want to point a lot of strangers to my 10 year old family blog. I don’t mind if people stumble upon it, but the content is probably not going to be interesting to people who don’t know me, and if it is… well, that’s just weird. So for any of my readers of this blog who are interested in following my RV adventures, here is the link. You can go back and read my early entries when I started thinking about what kind of rig I wanted to buy, and on up through now.  I may occasionally post RVing entries here, but will rarely post family or non-camping activity there.

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