Monthly Archives: December 2015

Do Not Miss Denali

I have very few travel regrets. I traveled to Belgium and I didn’t visit Bruges. I went to South Africa and I skipped Cape Town and a side trip to Victoria Falls, Zambia. Every time I hear about these places I think, “Why did I miss that?” As a result, I now do better research to find the “do not miss” places in the vicinity of my travel destinations. Do not, I repeat, do not go to Alaska and skip Denali. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip for me. I only wish I had spent more time there.

The original name of the highest mountain in North America was Denali, a Native American word meaning high one or great one. It was renamed Mt. McKinley by William Dickey in 1896 when gold was discovered and William McKinley was running for President. The 2 million acre tract of land was named McKinley National Park like the mountain when it was established in 1917. Then in 1975, Alaska restored the name Denali to the mountain but the federal government continued to call it Mt. McKinley. In 1980, Congress expanded the park to 6 million acres and changed the name to Denali National Park and Preserve. Finally, in September 2015, the name of the mountain was also restored to Denali at the federal level by executive order. Confused? Needless to say, all of this was mired in politics but suffice it to say the name of the mountain has been restored to the original Native American name and the national park is named after it.

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Entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve

In spite of the distance to Alaska and the relatively small state population, Denali National Park and Preserve hosts over one-half million visitors each year. To reduce traffic and emissions, the park restricts traffic beyond mile 15 to shuttle and tour buses. Green shuttle buses are the hop on hop off variety but there is no narration provided. Fares vary from $27.50 to $52.50 based on time and distance.  The tan tour buses provide a narrated tour with a box lunch. Prices range from $70.75 to $165 also  depending on time and distance.  We were scheduled and assigned to the Tundra Wilderness Tour by the cruise line as part of our package. If you visit the park on your own, reservations are not required but you can schedule your tour ahead of time here.

Our tour started in the afternoon so we hiked some of the trails and checked out the Denali Visitor Center in the morning. Free courtesy shuttles provide transportation from the hotels to the entrance of the park where various hiking trails begin. We chose the Horseshoe Lake Trail which was moderately difficult but people in worse shape seemed to handle it and the spectacular scenery was definitely worth it.

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Jim and Sheryl setting off for a hike

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Our first view from above on Horseshoe Trail. We climbed down then back up on the hike.

 

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Nary a bear to be found but I was alert, nevertheless

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Quiet, peaceful beauty of the trail

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Horseshoe Lake

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Nenana River

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Horseshoe Lake

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Horseshoe Lake

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Jim on Horseshoe Lake Trail

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Sheryl on Horseshoe Lake Trail

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After the return climb from Horseshoe Lake Trail

After hiking the 3.2-mile loop, it was on to the Denali Visitor Center to check out the informational materials they had to offer. The displays were beautifully presented with lots of mounted animals that are found within the park.

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Denali Visitor Center

The only bear I saw happened to be outside the Visitor Center welcoming visitors. I joined the kids in getting a photo.

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Laura and the bear

After a bite to eat in the cafeteria we caught our tour bus that would take us further into the national park.

Our tour guide, a trained interpretive naturalist, was engaging and well-informed, providing us with natural history details galore while keeping an eye out for wildlife.

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Our tour guide

The “big five” in Denali are bears, Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and wolves. We hoped to see them all and the sign below raised our hopes even further.

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Sign on Park Road

Our first wildlife sighting was of Dall sheep high on the far-off slopes but they are just white dots on my photos. Tip: take a good camera with a telephoto lens if you really want to get the shot.

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White dots on the ridge are Dall sheep

Fortunatley, the driver had a telephoto video camera that he showed on a screen in the bus.

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Video screen on the bus to see distant animals

We saw lots of caribou. I can’t tell you exactly how many we saw but by the end of the tour, most tourists didn’t bother to look when one was spotted. The first views were exciting, however. Our naturalist told us that mosquitoes relentlessly torment the caribou. They are literally covered in mosquitoes and they look for snow or mud to bury themselves to escape the misery.

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Caribou

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Caribou laying in the dirt trying to avoid mosquitoes

Try as we might, we didn’t see any bears, wolves, or moose but we did see  beautiful scenery. Many of us tried to capture a bit of it from the bus and each time we stopped.

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Denali National Park and Preserve from the tour bus

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Denali National Park and Preserve

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Denali National Park and Preserve

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Denali National Park and Preserve

And then we saw this. The second day of clear, pristine views of Mt. Denali. Our enthusiasm was not dampened in the least by continued views of this spectacular moutain.

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Mt. Denali (aka Mt. McKinley)

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A shuttle bus on the Park Road with a view of Mt. Denali

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Selfie with Mt. Denali

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Mt. Denali

 

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Mt. Denali

 

Based on events of June 2015.

 

Categories: Denali, History, natural history, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Scenes from the Bus to Denali

Our cruise ship docked at Seward where we boarded a motor coach to begin the land portion of our Alaskan adventure. The 364 mile bus trip to Denali took all day but the scenery and the narration by our driver made the trip most enjoyable. If you read my previous posts about Alaska, you may think this day was less impressive than previous days. Not so, and you’ll soon see why.

We began our road trip on the Seward Highway, a 125 mile scenic byway which crosses the Kenai Peninsula from Seward to Anchorage.

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Kenai Peninsula

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View along Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula

 

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View from Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula

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View from Seward Highway on Kenai Peninsula

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While it was great to leave the driving to someone else and concentrate on capturing the beautiful scenery by photo, one of the distinct disadvantages was not being able to stop when we wanted. I usually take a picture of a nearby sign to tell me where my photos were taken which wasn’t possible from a moving vehicle. Consequently, I can’t tell exactly where many of my photos were taken and I can’t label each mountain and lake.

We did hear the story of Moose Pass, however, and I snapped a photo from the bus. The sign on the side of the road next to the waterwheel and grindstone announces, “Moose Pass is a peaceful little town. If you have an axe to grind, do it here.”

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Waterwheel and grindstone on the side of the road

We took a break at a rest area with picnic tables and hiking trails that was especially photogenic.

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Jim enjoying the spectacular view

Near the end of the Seward Highway, we drove along Turnagain Arm. In 1778, when Captain James Cook sought a northwest passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, he named the estuary he found Turnagain River because he was forced to turn around there. Captain Vancouver called it Turnagain Arm in 1794 when he explored the area.

There are two fascinating features of Turnagain Arm. First, one of the largest bore tides in the world occurs here. So what is a bore tide? Dictionary.com defines a tidal bore as, “an abrupt rise of tidal water moving rapidly inland from the mouth of an estuary.” Translated, that means while the water in the Turnagain Arm is flowing out to sea, the tide rushes into the estuary from the ocean. The resulting waves are high enough that surfers actually ride them. For more information and to see a video, check out Alaska Public Lands Information Centers.

The other feature is the mudflats which are composed of glacial silt that act like quicksand. The suction created when the mud is displaced is virtually impossible to break without help. Warnings advise hikers to steer clear because getting stuck in the mudflats with the tide coming in is a recipe for disaster.

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Mudflats on Turnagain Arm

After a quick stop for lunch at a restaurant at the edge of Wasilla, we continued toward the town of Willow on Parks Highway where we saw two more amazing sights. First, we got our first glimpse of Mt. Denali, then called Mt. McKinley. Second, we saw smoke. These two sights would dominate the rest of our Alaskan adventure.

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Smoke rising in Willow with snow covered Mt. Denali to the right in the background

Let me tell you first about Mt. Denali. We knew we would be very lucky to see the elusive highest mountain peak in North America. It’s more often obscured by clouds than not which is why people lucky enough to see it are called the 30% club. When we got our first glimpse, I started taking photos and didn’t stop. I have pictures taken from far enough away that you wouldn’t know it was Mt. Denali; I have photos of Mt. Denali barely visible behind other mountains; I have pictures taken through the bug-covered windshield of the bus. When I experience a rare event, I capture every minute with great enthusiasm before it disappears. Little did we know we would see Mt. Denali four days in a row. I wonder if there’s a club for that?

Here are a few more views from day one of Mt. Denali.

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Mt. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley)

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Mt. Denali

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Proof we were there

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Mt. Denali

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Mt. Denali

The other sight was the fire. We would see and hear more about this event, called the Sockeye Fire, throughout our stay. The blaze was reported at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, June 14, 2015. The seven photos I took as we drove through the area were taken at 1:16 and 1:17 p.m. By early the next morning, the blaze was out of control, Willow was under an evacuation order, and the road we had traveled was closed. We heard the fire was the result of fireworks but the cause was later determined to be an unattended illegal burn pile. In the end, 55 homes were destroyed, 7220 acres were burned, and the cost to fight the fire was $8 million. We would see more results from the Sockeye Fire when we left Denali.

We arrived at the McKinley Chalet Resort late in the afternoon and found our assigned room in the Cottonwoods Building.

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McKinley Chalet Resort

 

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Sheryl and Jim outside our hotel building

After exploring the grounds and grabbing some dinner, we were ready to call it a night and prepare for our tour of Denali National Park the following day. Thankfully, we had room darkening draperies because it never really got dark at all.

 

Based on events in June 2015.

Categories: cruise, Denali, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Glacier Bay, Alaska

One of my travel goals is to visit as many national parks in the United States as possible. The National Park Service offers a lifetime Golden Eagle Passport to seniors at age 62 for just $10. The pass admits the holder and all passengers in the vehicle to all national parks and monuments for the lifetime of the owner. Expect to show ID so the ranger can confirm the identity of the cardholder. I repeat, it’s a one-time $10 fee. I recently saw a website that said it was $10 per year which is incorrect. That’s why I linked to the national park website above. Click on Golden Eagle Passport above to check it out for yourself.

Another travel goal of mine is to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites whenever possible. “The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” (http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/) There are currently 1031 properties on the worldwide list, 23 of which are in the United States. The overwhelming majority (75-80%) are cultural sites with the rest made up of natural sites and some that are a combination.

These two goals coincided in a rare opportunity on our visit to Glacier Bay, Alaska, both a U.S. national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can get there only by air or sea so a cruise is the perfect way to see this spectacular natural site.

It’s difficult to capture and convey the immensity of the experience but the photo below of a cruise ship ahead of us in the inside passage helps. The ship looks like a small dot compared to the surrounding landscape.

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A cruise ship in the inside passage of Alaska heading toward Glacier Bay

We entered Glacier Bay at 6:45 a.m. and the park rangers embarked at 7 a.m.

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Glacier Bay National Park rangers arriving at the Oosterdam (photo by Sheryl)

We spent the entire day in Glacier Bay with park rangers narrating throughout the tour. Cruise ships don’t dock anywhere in Glacier Bay but the slow leisurely passage allowed ample time to appreciate the spectacular and inspirational scenery.

 

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Entering Glacier Bay

 

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Entering Glacier Bay

 

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Glacier Bay

 

Glacier Bay is all about nature. There’s not a lot of history here; in fact, in geological terms, Glacier Bay is very young. A product of the Little Ice Age, just 250 years ago the bay didn’t exist at all. One enormous glacier filled the area, reaching it’s maximum size around the year 1750. When Captain George Vancouver surveyed the area in 1794, the glacier had retreated just 5 miles but by the time John Muir came in 1879 the retreat had reached 40 miles more leaving the bay in its wake. Today, that glacier has retreated further north leaving behind around a dozen smaller tidewater glaciers some of which are visible from the bay (Glacier Bay National Park brochure).

The first glacier we saw was Rendu Glacier.

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Rendu Glacier

The Grand Pacific Glacier wouldn’t have been recognizable as a glacier at all to me without ranger narration. It looks gray or black rather than the distinctive blue ice because of the amount of moraine debris it has gathered.

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Grand Pacific Glacier

Nearby Margerie Glacier, on the other hand, displays the distinctive blue ice that we expected. Unfortunately, we missed a picture of calving on Margerie Glacier. Calving is when chunks of ice break off the glacier and crash into the water.

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Margerie Glacier

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Margerie Glacier

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Jim and I at Margerie Glacier

Before leaving Tarr Inlet where Grand Pacific and Margerie Glaciers were located, the captain turned the ship a full 360 degrees and then another 180 degrees so that everyone could get enough of the beautiful views. We spent enough time in the area that we even had lunch with the view.

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Lunch with a view of Margerie Glacier

Then, as we proceeded back down Glacier Bay, we also saw Johns Hopkins Glacier, Lamplugh Glacier, and Reid Glacier.

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Johns Hopkins Glacier

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Lamplugh Glacier

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Reid Glacier

We didn’t see a lot of wildlife but I read that humpback whales are often seen in Glacier Bay. We were excited to see some seals which Sheryl captured and allowed me to share.

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Seals covering small islands in Glacier Bay (photo by Sheryl)

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Seal resting on ice (photo by Sheryl)

Every day on this cruise exceeded the previous day in amazing scenery. Glacier Bay was both inspirational and unforgettable. Whether Glacier Bay was created by God or by chance, it was an experience of the highest spiritual nature.

Based on events of June 2015.

References:

Glacier Bay (brochure). National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior.

World Heritage. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

 

 

Categories: cruise, inside passage, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

All Aboard in Skagway, Alaska

The White Pass Scenic Railway is Holland America’s most popular excursion in Alaska and it was the one I was most keen to take. It’s also one of the few excursions that costs essentially the same price whether you book through the cruise line or privately, so I booked through HAL. (Otherwise, I often book privately to save money.) Passengers board the train just steps from where the ships dock in Skagway in front of the graffiti wall where cruise ships have recorded their maiden voyage to this port since 1917. A three hour roundtrip ride to the summit of White Pass is fully narrated while you climb to 2865 feet of elevation in just 20 miles.

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View of the train and graffiti wall from our verandah on the Oosterdam

The railroad was a direct result of the Klondike gold rush. When gold was discovered in 1896 at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers in northwestern Canada, stampeders flocked to Skagway and nearby Dyea by the boatload. But the trip from there to the gold fields was long and arduous. The route from Dyea, along the Chilkoot Trail, was shorter but the Golden Stairs, a 1,000 foot vertical climb in a quarter mile, was a definite drawback. The White Pass Trail starting at Skagway was 10 miles longer but less steep. When prospectors factored in the transport of a ton of supplies to last a year as required by the Canadian government, the White Pass Trail was the preferred route. Skagway became the Gateway to the Klondike.

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Display of 1 ton of supplies required by the Canadian government for each prospector to ensure their survival at the gold fields

Although the White Pass Trail was somewhat less treacherous, it was not without danger and hardship. The trail became a muddy quagmire resulting in the deaths of 3,000 horses and the nickname of Dead Horse Trail. The 21 year old then unknown writer, Jack London, who sailed to Skagway in 1897 penned, “The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost, and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps.”

Building a railroad was the logical solution to move men and supplies to the gold fields and this capitalist venture commenced in 1898. The project was a remarkable engineering achievement. A narrow gauge track was employed due to the tight curves required by the terrain as well as plenty of steep grades, tunnels, and trestles. The project was completed in 1899 at a cost of $10 million with the construction efforts of 35,000 men.

In 1994, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad received the designation of International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, an honor shared by the Panama Canal and the Eiffel Tower.

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Conductor on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad

 

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Looking back to Skagway from Inspiration Point to see the cruise ships in the harbor

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View of the Skagway River from the train

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Another view of the Skagway River from the train

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Views from the train

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View of the terrain and the train

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View of one of the tunnels from the train

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View from the train

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White Pass Summit, official border between U.S. and Canada

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White Pass Summit, mile 20.4, elevation 2888 ft.

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The old trestle that has been replaced

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Jim reading and Sheryl enjoying the view from the train

After our train ride, we explored the restored gold rush town of Skagway, Alaska. By 1897, after gold was discovered in the Klondike, the population swelled to about 20,000 but today there are only around 850 year-round residents.

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Restored gold rush town of Skagway, Alaska

We especially enjoyed Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park which is integrated into the town with information and historical displays in several buildings. The photo above of the 1 ton of goods is one such display. There were also many photographs from the time period and lots of explanatory material. It was a history lover’s gold mine of information.

All that history can bring on a powerful thirst and a good place to quench it is the Red Onion Saloon. When it first opened in 1898, the Red Onion served alcohol on the main floor with a brothel above. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks and a popular site in Skagway. We stuck to the main floor but for $10 a madam will talk dirty to you (in a guided tour of the brothel museum.)

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Red Onion Saloon

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Our server at the Red Onion Saloon

After a fun-filled day on the train and exploring Skagway, it was back to the Oosterdam in time for our departure.

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Based on events of June 2015.

 

Categories: Canada, cruise, History, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Over the River and Through the Woods at Korbisch’s Christmas Tree Farm

I grew up in Wisconsin, one of the top producers of Christmas trees in the U.S. When I was a child, we always had a real Christmas tree, a tradition Jim and I continued through our sons’ childhoods. When the boys were quite young, around 1990, we discovered Korbisch’s Christmas Tree Farm (then called Tannenbaum Acres) about 20 miles east of my hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin, at Wittenberg, where we could “choose and cut” our own tree.

We would join three of my brothers’ families on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, pile into our respective vehicles, kids and dogs in tow, singing Christmas carols during the ride, and go look for the perfect Christmas tree, always a balsam for me. For several years, we searched for three perfect trees, one for us and trees for two friends in Iowa. After a few years, the Korbischs knew to look for us.

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Michael, age 4, Brian, age 6, and Jim rockin’ his mustache in 1990

The tree farm is about 45 acres of balsam, spruce, and frasier fir trees in a lovely setting with a stream running through the property. You can choose and cut your own or select from the trees they have displayed onsite. They also sell fresh-cut trees wholesale and send trees by the semi-load as far away as Wyoming.

The kids loved the dogs and cats that roamed freely and the horse and llamas penned in an area where the kids could pet them. The baling machine was always fascinating to all of us. Matt fed the trees through the hole and it magically came out the other side with the branches nicely tied up and secured with twine. After baling, Matt would help Jim tie or bungee cord the trees to the top of our mini van to make the 300 mile trip back to Iowa.

Then the kids grew up and left home, and life got in the way of this cherished tradition. We didn’t get to Wisconsin over the Thanksgiving weekend for the last 5 years. We bought an artificial tree which I’ve never liked but we made do.

Finally, this year we visited my hometown over the Thanksgiving weekend. The next generation of my family that lives in Wausau now takes their kids and dogs over the river and through the woods to find the perfect live Christmas tree at Korbisch’s. We tagged along for old time’s sake.

The Korbischs greeted us warmly and said they had wondered about us and how our retirement was going. While we didn’t cut down a tree (having no way to transport it to Iowa on the top of a Prius) we loved our walk down memory lane. Matt and Sally have expanded the operation to include the sale of lumber and log furniture. The menagerie of animals has grown to include donkeys, sheep, and an alpaca.  With all they have going on out there, the Korbischs look forward to retirement from their primary jobs to spend more time on the tree farm.

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Korbisch’s Christmas Tree Farm

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Matt Korbisch (on the right) with Jim and my nephews. Check out the semi load of trees behind the red vehicle ready to ship.

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Sally Korbisch with the tree baler behind her

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Shed where customers can choose a cut tree

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The tree baler

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A log furniture piece for sale

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The warming house with a toasty fire inside and wreaths for sale 

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My great nephew, Chace, with the donkeys

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A couple of the sheep and the alpaca

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My brother’s grandchildren and their dog off to search for their tree

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Jim and I at the stream

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Korbisch’s Tree Farm

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My sister-in-law, Linda, and I found a perfect tree immediately

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Walking the trail

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I think the prices have remained the same since we started coming here

So, if it’s possible, start a tradition like this with your own dear families and if you get to Korbisch’s Christmas Tree Farm, tell them Jim and Laura sent you.

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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