Destination Baranof Warm Springs

This is the third of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.

Blue skies as far as the eye could see, with wispy clouds of white fanning out like the tentacles of the octopus (which was a common motif in the Sitka area). The Misty Fjord untied from the mooring buoy and began Day 2 of its exploration, headed for the Peril Strait.

Peril Strait, Alaska

Humpback whale spouts were spotted soon after launching for the day. The pleasure of a small ship like Misty Fjord, holding no more than 10 passengers (and this cruise, sailing with 8), is that the captain has only a few mandates for the itinerary, with the rest determined by the conditions and sightings of the day. As we spotted whales, the captain slowed the boat and cut the engine, so we could scan the waters and soak in the scene.

Humpback Whales in the Peril Strait, Alaska

The whoosh of a spout echoed across the strait, and the arched back of the whale soon followed. After several rounds of this routine, that magical tail flip would be the reward for patiently watching and waiting, the waters slowly streaming from the edge of the flukes as the large creature again entered the depths below.

Humpback Whales in Peril Strait, Alaska

With waters glassy and calm on the Peril Strait, the decision was made to put in the kayaks. Four tandem kayaks and a single kayak for our naturalist guide soon were quietly paddling across the surface as whales pushed air noisily through their blowholes from multiple corners of the channel.

Kayaking in the Peril Strait with Alaskan Dream's Misty Fjord

A whale would move lazily through the water, sometimes with a tail flip to signal a dive, and sometimes just repeating those undulating movements, all while our group continued making its way along a section of the strait.

The view of humpbacks from the kayak in the Peril Strait, Alaska

While we did not have a firm schedule for the day, we did need to get to Baranof Warm Springs for the evening. After enjoying the peaceful surroundings with the whales for a time, we paddled back to the boat to continue on our way.

Kayaking in the Peril Strait of Alaska

Making our way from the Peril Strait into Chatham Strait to the eastern side of Baranof Island, the Misty Fjord detoured into an almost hidden small bay. The bay was home to a spectacular waterfall cascading down the mountainside, spraying us as it reached the bay’s deep waters.

Viewing from the bow of the Misty Fjord (Alaskan Dream Cruises)

Rounding the corner of the bay back into the strait, we dismissed a lump in the water as a log …. until it moved …. and a harbor seal with its spotted belly did a slow turn into the water, while another whiskered nose peered our way and then dipped below the rippling wake.

Seals in the Inside Passage of Alaska

We continued southward along Chatham Strait. Mother Nature showed us just some of her many creative facets, using pollen to paint artistic patterns on the mirrored surface of the water.

Pollen art on the surface of Alaska's Inside Passage watersPollen art on the surface of Alaska's Inside Passage waters

Our final destination of the night was on the opposite side of Baranof Island from Sitka, along Warm Springs Bay.  Baranof Warm Springs is the name of the small community in the bay, but also refers to the naturally occurring mineral hot springs that converges with a rushing river fed by mountain snowmelt.

Approaching Baranof Warm Springs, Alaska

The Misty Fjord moored alongside a boardwalk-connected dock in Warm Springs Bay. With swimsuits under our hiking clothes, we grabbed beach towels and followed the boardwalk, up the stairs, and along a rocky, tree-rooted path.

Hiking to Baranof Warm Springs

Hike to Baranof Springs
Skunk Cabbage

At one point, the path opened to a pristine lake with a view that competed with any postcard scene.

Scenic lake stop on the way to Baranof Warm Springs

The trail led from the lake to a short, technically challenging spur that connected to the hot springs.

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The Baranof Warm Springs are not large, but consist of a couple natural pools with rock ledges and temperatures that reportedly range from 102 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 38 to 41 degrees Celsius). We carefully navigated the incline down to the pools and scooted in slowly, feeling our way to a level “seat” beneath the hot water, or sitting on the rocky edge with lower legs dangling in the flowing natural bath while our bodies adjusted to the warmth. The sub-spring surfaces were slippery to the touch, and one could go slithering into the deeper center of the pool if one picked the wrong spot as a “seat.”

Enjoying the Baranof Warm Springs

Many of us brought a cold beer to enjoy as the steam rose around us, even enjoying a little sunbathing while perched on the natural divide between the cold waterfall and hot springs.

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For those who wanted to extend the warm springs experience, the public bath house along the boardwalk provided a scenic spot to soak and relax.

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After dinner the tide rose high enough for us to take out the kayaks through a narrow channel that opened to a mountain amphitheater. Once you navigated the kayak past the rocky opening, you could float or gently paddle around the enclosed bay. The scenery was just as interesting under the kayaks — water clarity allowed a peek into the underwater world of starfish, anemones, and urchins of different colors and types.

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The sky dimmed and we paddled back to the boat to unwind and rest up for what tomorrow might bring.

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~ Kat

Next post: The Sea Lion Posse of Frederick Sound

Previous posts in the series: 

Leaving Sitka on the Misty Fjord

This is the second of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.

“It looked bigger on the website,”  I laughed as we unloaded from the Alaskan Dream Cruises courtesy van and walked down the ramp to where Ben, one of the Misty Fjord’s crew, was waiting to greet us. No gangway or long check-in lines; instead we simply stepped off the dock and onto the boat.

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After introductions to the captain, first mate, and chef, as well as the naturalist who initially greeted us, the cruise’s eight passengers were oriented and launched seemingly within minutes.

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My husband and I checked out our quarters for the week, and decided it was best only one of us unpack and get organized at a time, due to the “cozy” accommodations!

But unpacking could wait, as the shoreline receded and we made our way through Sitka’s classic bays and boat harbor. Cracking open a cold beer, we toasted the beginning of a week escaping the pressures of life and work ….

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Before Sitka had even disappeared from view, a commotion in the water caught our eye. A sea lion had caught its dinner — fresh salmon — while a bald eagle soared overhead, viewing the transaction as a treat to be shared. The eagle dive-bombed and tried to snatch the salmon from the sea lion, with the sea lion angrily barking in return, managing to protect its meal as the eagle decided the effort was not worth the return. The victorious sea lion finished its meal preparations by slapping the salmon several times on the water’s surface, ripping open a feast of pink flesh.

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Signs of development fading in the distance gave way to alternating snow-capped mountains and evergreen-covered inclines.

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Fishing boats would periodically cross paths with our boat, until we found ourselves alone in the pristine passages.

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The bow of the Misty Fjord yielded unrestricted views of the waters in front of us. We scanned the surface and shorelines, while soaking in the beauty of the surrounding panoramas.

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In the distance, the telltale signal of a whale was spotted … a water spout spraying above the water!

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Every few minutes, there was a hint of spray …

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or a fin here or there ….

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… until finally, that classic slow slip of the tail ….

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… as the flukes silently slipped below the surface. Iconic images to welcome us our first day on the water.

Before dinner, we all gathered with Captain Lucas and crew in the wheelhouse, and the crew shared their knowledge of the area along with some of the tentative itinerary plans for the week. The Misty Fjord is nimble and able to adapt its itinerary somewhat to accommodate interests of its passengers and the unique conditions that may present themselves.

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Chef Bo grilled fresh salmon for dinner, topped off by peach cobbler for dessert, and wine all around.

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Eight strangers were eight friends by the time the first evening on board drew to a close and folks settled in for the night.

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The Misty Fjord anchored in a quiet bay as the sunlight faded, with the prolonged Alaskan twilight enveloping us in a blue-purple glow. New adventures were waiting for us in the morning ….

~ Kat

Next post: Destination Baranof Warm Springs

Previous posts in the series: 

A Week-Long Alaskan Dream: Mosquito Cove Trail

We gathered in the hospitality room for Alaskan Dream Cruises in Sitka, Alaska, four couples from Michigan, New York City, Minnesota, and Australia. Introductions were made and we sized up our shipmates for the upcoming week. While the Misty Fjord finished its preparations for the Inside Passage cruise departure that afternoon, we were invited to join Alaskan Dream staff on a morning hike in the nearby Tongass National Forest.

The day before had been rainy and gray, so it seemed a good omen that the skies cleared and sun shone as we loaded into the van to hike the Mosquito Cove loop together. Making small talk and taking turns to point out interesting observations, we climbed timbered steps in the temperate rain forest, stepping carefully past piles of bear scat, while large slugs slowly made their way across the trail.

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We learned that only in the cleanest of atmospheres can a certain moss grow — usnea or “Old Man’s Beard” — a gossamer-like thread dancing in the slightest of breeze on the spruce and hemlock branches.  Old Man’s Beard reminded one of the delicate balance within Nature, and John Muir’s quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

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We emerged from the deeply-shaded forest to a cove at low tide, greeted by a world that is revealed periodically as the water recedes: broken shells left behind by ravens and other creatures seeking morsels from within; tiny crabs scurrying under rocks; slow-moving snails carrying smaller travelers on their backs. A person could miss the sub-plots as the allure of the main landscape story drew the eye to the larger vistas across the bay.

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Mosquito Cove, Sitka, AK

Looping back to the trailhead, the clear blue skies yielded unobstructed views of the dormant volcano, Mt. Edgecumbe.

Mt. Edgecumbe, Sitka, AK

We walked the remaining trail back to the van, to return to Sitka before embarking on our cruise adventure later that afternoon.

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Conversation already flowed more freely, and a casual, comfortable vibe was established among our new travel companions after sharing the meditative beauty of the forest together.

~ Kat

Next post: Leaving Sitka on the Misty Fjord

 

Making the Most of the Minnesota State Fair

It is once again time for the Great Minnesota Get-Together. Twelve days of an almost-overwhelming array of food, art, music, gardens, animals, shopping, and people. What you need are Minnesota State Fair Tips (#MSFTips) to help you create a plan of attack to maximize the fun!

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  1. Let Someone Else Do the Driving.

With so many options for transportation to the fairgrounds, why hassle with driving yourself and hoping there is an open parking spot nearby?! Free Park & Ride, Express Bus service, Lyft … there are plenty of options for enjoying the ride and guaranteeing a short walk to one of the entrance gates.

Link to MN State Fair transit options, here.

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2. It’s All About the Food

Go hungry.   With 27 new foods for 2018 alone, and a growing list of favorites from prior years, planning to share is a great way to optimize the number of foods you have the chance to sample throughout the day.  The State Fair Food Finder will help you satisfy your craving! I will even give you a sneak preview of our food list to get you started (remember, pacing is important!):

New Foods to Try?

  • Earth Wings (deep-fried cauliflower with sesame BBQ sauce) from French Meadow Bakery
  • Firecracker Stuffed Shrimp Avocado from the Hideaway Speakeasy
  • Mangonada Shave Ice (from Minnesnowii Shave Ice) is on my son’s list, while Honey Cream Soda Float (from Minnesota Honey Producers) is on mine
  • Nordic Waffles (the Slammin’ Salmon-on-a-Stick variety, perhaps?)
  • Smoked Soft Serve Ice Cream (cold press coffee flavor) from Blue Moon Dine-In Theater
  • Wood-Grilled Elote from Tejas Express (my son added this one, while I will stick with the classic Roasted Corn instead — see “Old Favorites” below)

Old Favorites on the “Must Eat” List?

  • Fruit and whipped crème crepe from the French Creperie
  • Roasted Corn from the Corn Roast (because sitting on the curb next to dozens of your Minnesota friends chewing on a cob of corn before tossing it into the communal compost bin is a classic Fair experience)
  • Blue Barn’s Blue Cheese & Corn Fritters with Chimichurri Sauce and their Blueberry Basil Lemonade
  • Pronto Pup – I can’t leave the Fair without having the flour-battered, deep-fried hot dog on a stick, generously brushed with ketchup and mustard.
  • Chocolate-dipped frozen bananas (my boys always make sure to find space for one)
  • Mediterranean Lemonade at Holy Land Deli (in the Int’l  Bazaar) — when you are ready to melt from heat, humidity, and crowds …
  • Wine Slushie – another perfect refreshment for a hot day (at the French Creperie).
  • Cheese Curds from the Mouth Trap (in the Food Building)

While I love Sweet Martha’s cookies, they are best when fresh, so if you buy that overflowing bucket o’ cookies take a tip from the cookie veterans who bring a gallon-sized ziplock bag and put the cookies that don’t fit in the bucket into the bag, so they can put the lid on the bucket for the ride home!

And don’t forget to pick up a Blue Ribbon Bargain Book and help support the Minnesota State Fair Foundation with your $5.00 purchase.

3. See a Show, Watch the Animals, Learn Something New

Grab the daily schedule from one of the information booths after you arrive on the fairgrounds for the day, or scouting out the day’s events ahead of time, either on the website or through the mobile app.

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4. Remember: The Agriculture-Horticulture Building is more than Farms and Plants!

One of our favorite stops of the day is the crop art competition and display. Creativity, political themes, cultural icons … it’s all in the Ag-Hort Building!

Check out my Minnesota State Fair posts from prior years for additional photos, tips and links:

~ Kat

Morning Climb to Castelmola

We had arrived in Sicily the day before, traveling from the airport in Catania to our hotel in Taormina on a gloomy, rainy day. The next morning dawned clear, with temperatures already climbing toward 50ºF (which for these Minnesotans was akin to beach weather).

Mt. Etna from the Hotel Bel Soggiorno

We only planned for one night in Taormina, so we would not have time to exhaustively explore the area. But I was determined to make room in the schedule to see the mountaintop village of Castelmola. What better way to battle jet lag than by lacing up the running shoes for a morning run with my son …. winding our way through Taormina to reach the zig-zag path up the mountainside.

Climbing the stairs in Taormina

My much-speedier son bounded up the steps, and on to the path that led to Castelmola via the Madonna della Rocca. At one point, striped tape was tied across the stony steps. When I paused and questioned whether perhaps the path was washed out up ahead, my son cavalierly responded, “Looks like fake news to me.” And away he went … as I huffed and puffed behind him, trying to maintain some semblance of running form.

The Stairs to the Madonna Della Rocca church

Thankfully, there were many reasons to pause and take in the view of Taormina below, with the Ionian Sea beyond. Periodically along the path were sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross, giving the rigorous morning outing a feeling of a pilgrimage, as well.

Stations of the Cross overlooking the Ionian Sea and TaorminaMadonna della Rocca high above Taormina

Upon reaching a plateau, the street sign reminded us that the climb to Castelmola was not over yet.

Road to Castelmola

The last stretch of the path sent my heart rate through the roof, as the incline seemingly never-ended, with the tease of the village straight above us.

Piazza Sant’ Antonio ~ Castelmola, Sicily

Our climb finally opened to the Piazza Sant’ Antonio with the charming Caffe’ Bar San Giorgio perched on the edge of village square.  The combination of jet lag and a challenging run/hike uphill left us parched, with the downhill journey back to the hotel  still ahead of us.

Caffe Bar San Giorgio in Castelmola

Thankfully, I had stuffed a 10 euro note in my jacket pocket, so we could take advantage of the picturesque cafe seating and a classic cappuccino, with a bottle of water to rehydrate for our downhill trip. We also ordered a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice, which ranks up there with the tastiest and most refreshing beverage ever! What we learned as the week went on, is that everywhere in Sicily the fresh-squeezed orange juice is spectacular  — a benefit of visiting during January, when the oranges are in season.

Mountaintop dining at Caffe Bar San Giorgio, Castelmola
Our eyes scream “jetlag” …. the view says, “no worries” ….

We entered the square in Castelmola and a rustic truck drove by with its loudspeaker calling out to the residents, announcing the arrival of fruits and vegetables for sale.

My son and I took a few minutes to wander the narrow, meandering paths of the village, still quiet as the day began.

Narrow alleys of Castelmola

Mt. Etna provided the postcard-worthy backdrop to Castelmola’s public library.

Castelmola's library with a view

Knowing my husband and younger son were waiting for us to join them for breakfast back in Taormina, we headed down again, refreshed and refueled after our mountaintop stop.

Descending from Castelmola

Completing our run with a circular route, we took the path off of Via Branco to Taormina.

Returning to Taormina from Castelmola on Via Branco

The village of Castelmola quickly receded from view, as we bounded downhill and wound our way along the narrow path leading to the touristed streets of Taormina. I encouraged my son to go on without me, since he had so patiently waited for me to catch up on several occasions on the first half of the trek, but he kindly hung with me as we finished what ended up being an almost 5-mile outing.

Mountaintop Castelmola viewed from Salita Branco

Oftentimes the best vacation memories are not the iconic sights, but instead the times when you soak up your surroundings without the fancy window dressings of a tour or excursion or timetable in hand. Do more than just visit a destination … enjoy the journey.

~ Kat