Denali Northern Expenditure

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M/V Tustumena

Taking the Alaska Ferry Through the Aleutians

This year, we decided to take our family on the Alaska Marine Highway from Dutch Harbor to Kodiak – a 2.5-day journey and often referred to as the “ferry to the end of the world.” The trip was worth it and wonderful and here’s what you need to know:

One of the many, many bald eagles in Dutch Harbor, Alaska

Why We Did it:

I’ve been wanting to take this ferry since moving to Alaska. We live in a weird and wonderful state and I want to explore as much of it as I can. The push to actually book the trip this year was the Governor threatening to cut all Alaska ferries. These ferries are vital to connecting Alaskan communities and were never built to be a money maker. That is why they called them the “Alaska Marine Highway System” because roads also don’t make money. They make communities. All of the communities on the Aleutian ferry can only be accessed by ferry or plane. Many are too small for a landing strip.

Aleutian village

The Route:

We flew to Dutch Harbor and rode the ferry up the chain to Kodiak. We were told by ferry staff that we rode the “locals route.” The tourist route is the opposite one: Homer or Kodiak to Dutch Harbor/Unalaska (The harbor is called Dutch Harbor, but the town is called Unalaska, so you fly into Dutch Harbor, but the town and the island it is on is Unalaska). Ferry staff told us that during the “tourist route” the tiny towns come out in full force at each stop with stopover tours, local donuts, and tiny souvenir stands. Though we’re sad we missed the tours and donuts, we’re glad we got to see the ferry exactly as it is used by fellow Alaskans.

Dutch Harbor – and some of the famous Deadliest Catch boats in the harbor

As a tourist, I would probably recommend you take the other way. Homer is a 4-hour drive from Anchorage, but one-way rentals are hard to find which is why we chose to end in Kodiak. We flew into Dutch Harbor from Anchorage and flew back to Anchorage from Kodiak. Flights to these areas (especially Dutch Harbor/Unalaska) can be very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars for a one-way flight. This can be a good use of Alaska Airlines miles. Instate flights are cheap using Alaska Airlines miles – Dutch harbor can be as low as 7,500 one way and Kodiak 5,000. Keep in mind that inclement weather cancels flights in Dutch Harbor very frequently, so add a few days of a buffer in your trip if you get stuck in Dutch Harbor at the end of the journey so you don’t miss your Anchorage flight home. We left Dutch Harbor at 4pm on Saturday afternoon and arrived in Kodiak on Tuesday morning at 2:15am. The ferry journey was $361 for each adult, $181 for kids 6-11, and free for kids 0-5. Our 4-person cabin with bathroom was $635, so we paid a total of $1,719 for this ferry journey (and used miles to pay for flights each way).

Fossil Beach, Kodiak Alaska

On-Board Logistics

The Solarium on the Tustumena

While it is legal to duct tape a tent to the top deck of the ferry, this route isn’t the best to do that. We watched a family try, but nearly lose their poles to the wind. Eventually, they gave up and headed inside. One man did set up just a cot in the solarium at the top deck (it’s both covered and heated but very, very loud). We got a 4-person cabin and one of the kids slept on the floor between the 2 bunk beds. Our cabin had a small bathroom in it, but many don’t. There are, however public bathrooms and showers on board. You’re also able to sleep in the lounge chairs or the few booth tables in the lounge, but booth benches fill up FAST by locals that ride the ferry frequently. I recommend a cabin. It was worth sleeping in a bed in darkness (reminder: Alaska doesn’t get dark all night during the summer).

Our fancy cabin on the ferry

Food on board is available in the full-service restaurant on the M/V Tustumena. The restaurant is only open 1-1.5 hours for each meal and has a limited menu with prices $10-12 per entree (and no tipping servers because they are all public servants and can’t accept tips). Also, they are limited to ingredients on board. After the second morning, they ran out of syrup for breakfast. There are also 2 public microwaves and a Keurig that offers free hot water. We ate two meals in the restaurant, but ate the rest using the microwave and hot water options. We brought oatmeal and hot cocoa packets for breakfast, lots of snacks for lunch, and just-add-water pho bowls and microwavable indian food and rice packets for dinner. We brought our own microwavable bowls (cups were available for coffee) and never had to compete for the microwave.

Also, the ferry is in the open ocean for much of the journey in a very windy/rainy part of the world. We lucked out with 5-8-foot swells but the crew said 20-30-foot swells aren’t uncommon. I was definitely on Dramamine for the ride.

The ferry has a “movie room” where the purser will load movies during the slower times on board – the days with fewer stops. She played a few kid movies and a couple Alaskan documentaries. We also brought lots of games to play as a family. My kids also had Kindles and workbooks for when we needed them to calm down on the boat.

Tufted Puffins

Bring a good camera and binoculars and be ready to just watch the waters. We saw cute otters, some fin whales, a pod of orcas, some porpoises, tufted puffins, horned puffins, and many, many other kinds of birds. Bring lots of coats and hats and gloves because sitting outside the boat in the wind and rain can be very cold.

Cute Little Otter

The Stops

Since we were on the “locals’ route,” we didn’t have offered tours and most of the towns weren’t close enough to walk all the way into “town” (they’re all really small) during our small stop, but we made sure we got off at each one and walked around the dock and took pictures. We also got good views of each town as we pulled up and drove away on the ferry. Akutan is the one town that is right at the dock. The whole town is car-less and has boardwalks between all the houses for 4-wheelers. In 20 minutes we were able to walk all the way from one of town to the other. Each town has its own cute little Russian Orthodox Church and most have fish processing plants.

Akutan, Alaska

Who Rides the Ferry?

There were 5-6 other Alaskans that took the governor’s threat seriously and bought a ticket like we did and there was one explorer from California, but the rest of the people on board were using the ferry for real life. We were there at the end of the school year, so there were 4 teachers from several of the islands that were moving to other villages to teach the next year. There were sports teams riding to compete with other villages. One family was moving from Dutch Harbor to Colorado. Two of the towns are on the same island but have no road between them. One town has the airport and the other has the harbor. Many residents of one town got on the ferry to get to their fishing boats in the other.

Us watching the car elevator on the Trusty Tusty

We spent a lot of time at each stop down on the car deck watching them load and unload all sorts of things onto and off of the ferry with the ferry’s unique car elevator system. The dock at each stop is at a different height, so the car elevator allows vehicles to be loaded and unloaded at each stop despite the height differences. Every stop was a complete logic puzzle. They loaded garbage trucks, semis, several boats, many 4-wheelers with trailers attached, and a whole carnival of rides!

Loading a boat onto the car elevator

Was It Worth It?

I absolutely loved the trip. It was beautiful and crazy and fun. It was so fun to talk to locals about how they use the ferry, talk to the staff about how they ended up there (many, many crazy stories), and see the landscape of the Aleutians. We were also able to learn a lot more about the history of WWII in Alaska in Unalaska and Kodiak which are important stories all Americans should discover (you should at least know about the Battle of Attu and the Aleut Relocation Camps). We were able to explore old bunkers and lookout points at both Unalaska and Kodiak.

Hiking up Bunker Hill in Dutch Harbor

The boat ride through the tree-less cliffs of the Aleutians was unreal. It was a scene from a movie and I am so glad I went!

Treeless cliffs of the Aleutians
Fin whales
Dipnetting 2018: A Record-Breaking Catch!

Dipnetting 2018: A Record-Breaking Catch!

If you’ve been around, you already know that Dipnetting is my favorite holiday. It’s so fantastic. And after last year’s rainy year with less fish, it was nice to have a sunny year with lots of fish! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the story of Dipnetting 2018:

All through June, there were dismal salmon counts reported thanks to a “blob” of warm water that stunted spawning off the coast of Alaska a few years ago. There were fears there would be no fish to catch! We had planned to go fishing on Monday, July 16, but the fish counts were still unseasonably low, so we postponed until Wednesday.

We got down there Wednesday and fished Wednesday afternoon/evening and Mr. T and I caught a combined 9 (I only caught 1 of those). Mr. T got back in the water Thursday morning and only caught 1. Then, during the low tide Thursday afternoon, we both got back in the water with our nets and the fish came! It’s always so fun to see a spike in fish while you’re in the water. It starts boiling with salmon and we were just throwing them out of the water. We filled our coolers and had to stop because we couldn’t fit any more!

Our friends joined us Thursday night and we watched their two teenage sons catch 20 before we all ate dinner. We got home Friday around 5pm and Mr. T and I washed and filleted salmon until around 10:30pm and then packaged all the fillets with the FoodSaver for the freezer until about 2am Saturday.

We ended with a total of 34 sockeye salmon! (though our household limit is 65, we never need that much!) That equals 91.8 lbs of edible salmon fillets! 

Biggest fillet this year: 34 oz

Smallest fillet this year: 12 oz

Dipnetting Costs

Because you know I like to calculate all of our costs, here is everything we spent for this year’s dipnetting trip:

  • $107.46 – 2 new camping pads for Mr. T and I. After waking up on our $7 cheap inflatable pads with leaks and being extra sore for the second day of fishing, I decided we were too old for this and immediately ordered some nice camping pads for next year. So, even though we didn’t get to enjoy them for this year’s trip, I’m counting them as part of this year’s costs.
  • $60 – The cost of 2 nights of camping on the beach and a $10 drop-off fee (we’ve only ever stayed 1 night in the past, but quite enjoyed being there a second night).
  • $42 – Gas for the car for the roundtrip.
  • $6.58 – Ice to keep the fish cool.
  • $17.34 – The annual Blizzards at DQ for all five of us post-dipnetting on the way home (Mr. T and I split a large to cut costs).
  • $12.35 – Some PVC fittings and a plastic container: Every year I descale the fish while Mr. T fillets. I’ve been doing this in our coolers in the grass, but the bending over gets harder each year. This year, Mr. T developed a sort of sink think that drained the water out and he clamped the hose to the side so I could do everything standing up. It made it so much easier!
  • $58 – Fishing licenses for Mr. T and I.
  • $69.90 – 1 new net (just the netting) and 2 new pole extensions. After catching very little last year with my short net and dumb netting, we got me new netting and 2 pole extensions to make my net as long as his. I’m happy to report I was a very successful fisherwoman this year with the new gear!
  • $66 – The cost to get 12 lbs of our fish professionally smoked.

Total Costs: $439.63 – A much more expensive year than usual thanks to new gear and staying an extra night.

Total Cost Per Pound: $4.79/lb 

It was a record-breaking year for us on poundage (the most edible meat we’ve ever caught!) but it was also a record-breaking year for our cost per pound (in a bad way). Check out Dipnetting 2015, Dipnetting 2016, and Dipnetting 2017 to compare. $4.79 is still pretty good for market rate fresh sockeye salmon that we eat weekly. If you end up with some salmon, be sure to check out Mr. T’s perfect salmon recipe!

Alaska Day: Why Alaska is So Great!

Alaska Day: Why Alaska is So Great!

Today is Alaska Day and the day that I like to reflect on how awesome this state of Alaska really is each year. You’ve heard me brag about it all before, but here is my current list of why I love Alaska so much:

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Dipnetting 2017: The Year With Less Fish

Dipnetting 2017: The Year With Less Fish

Our annual dipnetting trip this year was out of the ordinary. First off, the fish weren’t there. Usually the fish come in droves around July 15-17. We went down on July 17-18 and the fish still weren’t there. Here’s a graph comparing this year’s sockeye salmon run numbers throughout July and August (the red line) and last year’s numbers (the black line). See that big spike in the black line where it dips in the red? Yeah. That’s  when we went fishing. It got so weird that they even talked about shutting down dipnetting for awhile to let more salmon get up the river, and the counts finally rose a week later only when they shut down the commercial fishery for a few days.

Fish Counts

Despite the lack of fish in the river, we actually did quite well. We caught 21 salmon and they were pretty big this year. (I only caught 1 and Mr. T caught 20… but his net is significantly longer, so he was the only one in our group that actually managed to catch any fish.)

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Dipnetting for Alaskan Salmon

Dipnetting: Subsistence Salmon Fishing

Hey friends! We’ve updated our newsletter to be a weekly email that goes out on Saturday mornings complete with blog post links, random spattering of other interesting links from the interwebs, and some friendly updates on the Banks. Sign up on the sidebar. Try it out. If you hate it, unsubscribe after the first email! I won’t be offended. I have heard several express interest in knowing more about the kind of things I read outside of the blog. I’ve changed our newsletter to share those interesting things that just don’t seem to fit here (and there are loads!)

You may have noticed last week I posted our UK post without pictures. It’s now updated, so check that out. The reason? The reds were running! If that phrase makes no sense to you, I’ll translate: “Over 50,000 Sockeye salmon are running up the Kenai river every single day and everything must stop so we can go catch them!”

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Financial Benefits of Alaska

I wanted to write a post highlighting the financial benefits of living in Alaska. With oil prices low, the state of Alaska isn’t in a great financial position. The state’s operating budget has counted on major income from oil and that income is now severely lacking. Because of that, many of these things may change this next year. But as things stand now, despite our high cost of living, there are several major perks for living in the state.

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Iditarod 44

The Iditarod started yesterday and we wouldn’t be Alaskan if we didn’t talk about it. In truth, I love the Iditarod. The Iditarod, in part, celebrates the great serum run of 1925. Nome was hit hard with diphtheria and needed medicine.

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Dutch Ovens, Hockey, & Earthquakes: Another Alaskan Weekend

Living in Alaska, I start taking things for granted. I stop realizing that things we do and experience are actually odd and interesting to people outside of Alaska. Our weekend was exactly that.

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Scarcity Spending

Scarcity is a big economic principle surrounding the basic idea of something being in short supply. For our purposes here, however, we’re going to define scarcity as the “opposite of sticker shock.” Our definitions:

Sticker Shock – Something you experience when you see how expensive things are. When you first move to Alaska, you will experience this. Apples are nearly $3/lb?! (not at Costco, though still more expensive than outside Alaska).

Scarcity – When you leave Alaska and realize everything is so cheap, but those prices will only last until you go back to expensive Alaska!

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The Magic of Holidays: Traditions

Tomorrow’s Halloween!! Mr. T and I love holidays. We both decked out apartments and dorm rooms with decorations (many sent from our parents) before marrying each other and consolidating our decorations. Don’t worry, we’re not all scary-music-in-the-lawn for Halloween or timed-musical-light-show at Christmas crazy. But we do decorate. We have a 4-foot tree in our entryway that we decorate for every holiday. For Christmas, we move it upstairs and put it in our window. The kids love holidays because we love holidays. While decorations are not something we would currently spend money on, we’re glad we have them.

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