Anchorage came at a perfect point. Our water pump had stopped working about a week prior which made it difficult to “dry camp,” i.e. not hooked up to a water supply or electricity. We could do it, but it meant going outside the camper to drain water from our holding tank instead of using the water from the tap in our kitchen, bathroom or shower. Yikes! Well, after tinkering around with the water system for about half a day, I figured out the problem and got that going again. Then while driving around town, the engine light came on in the Honda Element as it lurched a couple times while going down the highway! Ugh… I thought that would cost a few hundred dollars to repair. But luckily the car repair places were booked up for a couple weeks and someone suggested going to O’Reilly’s Auto Parts to have them do a free sensor read on the engine light. I have to give a big shout out to Alex Vandermolen who works at O’Reilly’s in Anchorage for his SECOND TO NONE customer service. He not only diagnosed what was going on, but helped change out the parts that needed fixing! You don’t see customer service like that anymore and I was so impressed with his kindness - even offering to work on it after-hours if what we did didn’t fix it.
Well, Little Zhenya was not having the best time camping and when the offer to go visit the grandparents in Pennsylvania came up, she jumped at it. So off she flew by herself to PA, leaving just me, Zhenya, baby Emily and TJ. That made deciding where to go for our side trips a little easier since Zhenya and I had pretty much the same ideas in where to go and what to see.
First we went on a couple day excursion down towards Homer, stopping to camp near the Russian River. We initially stopped at a private campground, not realizing there was a state park 5 minutes further down the road. The private campground had water, electric and sewage hook ups, but our site was so close to the neighboring RVs on both sides that we wouldn't be able to even open our arms wide! So when we walked down the road and found the state park with spacious sites where neighbors weren’t even visible, we decided from that point we’d stay in parks without hook ups as often as possible rather than the private grounds. Plus the park had nice trails leading down to the Kenai River where I could try my hand at a little salmon fishing! TJ often would try to help me by jumping in the water near where I was casting. Zhenya loved the park, too, where she found several different types of wild mushrooms that she picked for our meals. Yes, a little scary for me where the only good mushroom comes from a plastic covered box from the grocery store, but she had me a believer in them after my first (scary) bite.
I fished the Kenai and Russian Rivers and didn’t catch any salmon, but did catch a nice lake trout (in a river). He unfortunately was accidentally released by the game warden when she went to inspect his size and pulled on the stringer too fast, breaking it and setting my one fish free.
The town of Homer was nothing to see! All touristy little shops and nothing of interest unless you plan to go on a charter to fish for halibut. I would definitely skip going to Homer if I had it to do again. We did see a bunch of sea otters out in the ocean and a bunch of eagles along the way, but I didn't have my nice lens to capture the scenes.
The other AMAZING side trip out of Anchorage was our overnight camping trip to Katmai National Park to see the brown bears feeding at the Brooks River falls. We rented some camping gear from REI and got a short flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, then on a sea plane to Katmai to spend one night in their campgrounds. Emily did great and seemed to enjoy seeing the bears almost as much as we did. Zhenya thinks she looked at them as just another big TJ wandering around. Maybe, but I loved just watching her smile at the wildlife.
Back in Anchorage, we stayed at the Fam Camp on Elmendorf. We saw more types of animals in that campground than all of the rest of Alaska - a moose, a fox, and a mother black bear with 3 cubs that startled us as she came out of the laundry room with her cubs just as we were about to pass. Apparently someone had thrown some food away in the trash can.
Next stop - Denali National Park!