Category Archives: Travels

Our Trip to Sitka

~ by Maria Benner

I decided to do a guest blog post today, to tell you all about our recent trip to Sitka. I have a tradition to visit places on, or around my birthday, where I’ve never been in Alaska. Since Alaska is such a big place, and some towns are only accessible by plane, or boat, my list is long. I’ve lived in Alaska for 30 years, and had never been to Sitka, the former capital of Alaska when it “belonged” to Russia. I used quotation marks, because Alaska Natives were here first.

The news has been making a big deal about how difficult it is to travel this summer, with flight cancellations being the norm, hotels and restaurants understaffed, and a high demand for all these services from travelers who have been cooped up too long during the pandemic. Well, the news was kind of right, but we didn’t really experience inconveniences to the extent that travel experts have been warning us about. Our Alaska Airlines flights were full, and on the way back, one passenger was asked to leave the plane, because he was non-revenue, so he lost his seat to a revenue passenger. He had already flown on our flight from Sitka to Juneau, but got kicked off in Juneau, and didn’t get to fly to Anchorage as he had planned. However, all our flights were on time! I was surprised at how few passengers wore masks, considering the transmission rate is high right now. All Alaska Airlines and airport employees wore masks, and so did we. I plan to always wear a mask on an airplane.

Sitka is a cruiseship port, so for most of the day the town was busy with cruiseship passengers. Lincoln Street is the main shopping district, and also where the famous St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral is. All the ships leave at 5pm, so after that, the town was ours! Getting lunch was our biggest challenge. All the restaurants were full, and understaffed. We had to show up to dinner at 5:30 to get a table, and had lunch at the Asian Palace both days, because it had tables available, probably since it was off the main street. I will never forget the silky, perfectly-cooked King salmon at Beak Restaurant.

Lincoln Street busy with cruiseship passengers
Deserted after the cruiseships left

We got super lucky on the weather. Last year my birthday trip was to Cordova, and it was raining sideways from every single side. This year karma really rewarded us with beautiful blue skies. I really wanted to see the famous Mt. Edgecumbe volcano, and got to see it! On our last day the cloud ceiling appeared, and blocked the tops of the mountains and the volcano.

Mt. Edgecumbe Volcano

The trip was a dream. I definitely recommend doing research about all the must-see places in Sitka, before you go there. I ended up being the guide for our little group of three: me, my mom, and Scott. They didn’t bother learning anything ahead of time, so I was in charge of our itinerary. You don’t need a car in Sitka. There are nice public buses that will take you everywhere, but you can walk to almost every attraction. My only regret was not having time to go on a hike. Two days is plenty of time to explore the most interesting places.

Next year I plan to visit Lake Clark National Park.


Giants Baseball Game at AT&T Stadium

Before the pandemic, going to a baseball game in a crowded stadium was possible. We used to also have weddings, and sometimes we even left our home state to go places.  I went to a wedding in California to see my cousin get hitched back in 2017. Then we went to an amazing baseball game at Oracle Park (a.k.a AT&T Stadium) in San Francisco. I bought myself a Giants ball cap from a street vendor and my uncle had procured tickets for the whole family.  My brother-in-law, and sister met us for pre-game beers at a local brewery called Cellarmaker.  I always wait until the 7th inning stretch to buy a beer at a ball park, because they are kind of expensive. I can milk the abnormally large beer for the rest of the game, even if it goes into extra innings. I think I paid about $20 for my 20 oz beer, so that’s $1 per oz.  This is not a particularly good price, but the selection was excellent. Lagunitas, Anchor, and 21st Amendment were available back when I was there. The Internet tells me that Local Brewing, and Russian River are on the menu now, or will be when we are all allowed back in the park.  We had a great time, and I was really impressed when foul balls went into the Bay, and when gulls were dive bombing for hotdogs.  The Giants didn’t win that game, but everyone wins with a 20oz brew and great live entertainment in the sun.  I hope you get to go to your favorite ball park soon! I have a good feeling the 2022 baseball season will be closer to normal.  In the meantime, buy the cardboard cutout for yourself, and make sure you have a beer in your hand to show how much fun you are having!

Cheers to getting back to normal, and in the meantime, live abnormally well, when you can!

This original oil painting, and signed prints are available at my Etsy shop.

Beer at a Giants Baseball Game at AT&T Stadium. 11″x14″, oil on panel, framed.
Maria and I stoked about seeing a Giants game!

“A Pray Ski” – Beer and Ski Trippin’

Après ski means “after ski” in French, and refers to fun social activities after a day of skiing.  The phrase stems from ski resort night life culture in the Alps, and is pronounced “a pray ski”.  I always thought it was pronounced ski apree, which is totally wrong.  On a recent ski trip to Idaho and Utah, I finally learned how to say it correctly, thanks to my brother-in-law, Kevin.  Two weeks ago Maria and I flew out of Alaska, rented a car in Seattle and started our ski/beer trip in Yakima, where 77% of the nation’s hops are grown.  Our first stop was the local homebrew supply store called Yakima Valley Hops and Brew Supply, where we bought small packages of four different hops, and got great tips for places to sample local IPAs.  We visited Bale Breaker Brewing, situated on a 41-acre hop field, and sampled several IPAs, right at the source.  In the evening we visited a great little beer bar called Public House of Yakima, where we sampled numerous types of fresh IPA from several breweries around the region.

The color of IPA at the Public House of Yakima.

The next day we drove to Walla Walla (to visit Grandma), and Pullman where my Aunt and Uncle live.  I hear they are engineering new varieties of barley at Washington State University in Pullman, specifically for malting.  We stayed the night there, and then drove to McCall, Idaho on a scenic road along the Salmon River.  The drive was very beautiful through the natural river canyon.  We skied at Brundage Mountain and had some Salmon River Brewing beer for après ski.  We also made a trip to McCall Brewing, but neglected to visit Broken Horn.  The Salmon River IPA was spot on, and I loved the hip brewery vibe at McCall Brewing.  Maria and I enjoyed McCall and were sad to see this leg of the trip end.  Excited to see what was next, we headed east to see what was happening in Boise.

Skiing at Brundage Mountain near McCall, ID.

Aprés ski at Brundage Mountain.

I never knew Boise was such a hipsters’ hangout, but I have never really given it a chance — always flying in, and driving straight to Sun Valley Ski Resort from the airport.  I was dead wrong thinking it was just an industrial hub — Boise is teeming with fun!  Upon arriving we drove the 18 mile, 45 minute drive up to Bogus Basin.  This ski area is pretty big, with 1,800 vertical feet and 2,200 skiable acres, featuring three high speed quad chair lifts and a very low ticket price ($39.99 when purchased in advance).  We were already sunburned from skiing at Brundage, but Bogus nailed me right in the nose.  There is a special little brew pub right at the base of the Bogus Basin Road called Highlands Hollow Brewhouse where people traditionally drink beer after skiing.  We sampled a couple brews there (only $3/pint) and then ditched the car at the hotel.  Highlands had a great skier vibe, and a festive rubber chicken dangling above the bartender.  

Decor at Highlands Hollow Brewhouse.

We walked from our hotel down a lovely paved path along the river to downtown where our first stop was Woodland Empire Brewing.  I sampled all the IPAs at the brewery, and the So Juicy was my favorite.  We also visited Barbarian Brewing, which specializes in odd and barrel aged beers.  I tried the IPAs, and a few extremely strong malt beverages.  All were very good.  We finished up the evening at Payette Brewing where I could only try one IPA, as I was pretty much done from sun, skiing and probably too much beer at that point.  We awoke the next morning to search out delicious beers to take to Utah with us, which we found at the Boise Co-op.  A great variety and really cool silver-can offerings were to be found.  We also went to Whole Foods and grabbed a sandwich, some sushi and a nice salad.  The drive to Ogden from Boise isn’t that long, but going the speed limit at 80mph on a windy day was stressful, and I was white-knuckled as we pulled into my sister’s driveway!

In Utah we skied at Snowbird, Alta and Snowbasin.  I am not sure which was my favorite.  All of these places are huge, and I think I could ski them all endlessly.  All good things come to an end, and what’s better for after skiing than beer?  The Church of Latter Day Saints has a large influence in Utah, and the current alcohol restrictions are pretty harsh.  All draft beer has to be less that 4% ABV, but bottled beer can be served at higher alcohol content. While we were in Utah the local government raised the limit by 1%, but the change doesn’t take effect for a few months.  The strict rules and alcohol repression isn’t really working, as we tried a thing at Alta called the “Alta Bomb.”  It’s like an Irish Car Bomb, but instead of dropping the shooter of whiskey and Baileys, you drop a double-shot of espresso into a pint of PBR.  Note that coffee is also not approved by Mormons.  It was a gut-wrencher, but sure did help the afternoon fatigue.  After Alta we went to a very new brewery called SaltFire Brewing, serving beer with high point ABV in bottles.  The SMASH Citra IPA was on point, and the place was nicely decorated, with barrel tables and a light show on the brewery equipment.  Our day at Snowbasin was epic with rain, snow, and sun all in the same day!  We didn’t drink on the mountain, but did stop at a little place called the Shooting Star Saloon in Hunstville, UT.  It was a western, last-frontier style saloon that served 4% draft beers and had a strange collection of taxidermy animal heads on the walls, including the head of a giant St. Bernard.  I can only imagine how much slobber that dog must have generated!  The ceiling was covered with $1 bills.  We all split a pitcher of very session-able 4% IPA by Epic Brewing.  

The decor at Shooting Star Saloon.

The last day of our trip we didn’t ski.  Instead, we visited Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City, and Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake.  The LDS headquarters were very interesting and quite impressive.  I felt like I was in a different country, somewhere in Europe, while we explored the vast campus of religious buildings.  The Lake has a lot of birds, flies and…salty water, as well as awesome views of the surrounding mountains.  We checked into our Air BnB in the afternoon only a mile from Epic Brewing!  Epic is a really spectacular brewery with some really creative beers.  Yes, they only served from bottles (so wasteful).  I enjoyed a 9% West Coast Style IPA, which was spot on, and Maria had a lot of little barrel aged beer samples ranging from a coffee imperial stout to a rose sour brew.  While in the tasting room I met a guy who was wearing a Templin Family Brewing hat, and he gave us a ride there next.  On the way, he pointed out Fisher Brewing (we specifically picked our Air BnB location based on proximity to breweries).  We drank a robust imperial stout at TF (served in a can).  Then wrapped up the evening at Fisher Brewing — a historic name in Utah beer.  We just tried a couple session IPAs on tap, and walked back to our room as we had to catch a flight back to Alaska at 5am!  

The Temple.

Templin Family Brewing

The coolest beer fridge at Fisher Brewing.

Overall, we were impressed with the sunny weather in Idaho, the hip nature of Boise, and the awesome ski areas in Utah.  We’ll have to make ski/beer trippin’ an annual tradition, but next year we’d like to visit Colorado.

Trio Fatbike World Championships 2019

We spent the weekend in Talkeetna for the 7th annual Trio Fatbike World Championships.  I’m not sure why it’s called the Trio, but I’m going to say it refers to fast, friendly, and fun!  Unlike during the Susitna 100 race, this time I wasn’t concerned about getting a fast time — I was more interested in having a good time in the backwoods of Talkeetna.  I got to hang out on the 21-mile trail, and enjoy the spirit of trail camaraderie!   I swore off racing after the Susitna 100, but I had already paid and registered for the short version of the Trio.  So I raced without trying to go too fast.  This was not a problem, as the first 12 miles were a mix of biking and walking.  I think I was on my bike 50% of the time due to soft, squishy snow from higher than normal temps.  It sure was nice not to carry that emergency gear the Susitna 100 requires.  I arrived to the trail party nicknamed “Shangri-La” about 3 hours into the event.  I spent about an hour enjoying the sweet bonfire, and the company of beer-loving cyclists.  I avoided the whisky and drank an Anchorage Brewing Rondy Brew, and then refilled my 16 oz water bottle from the keg of Denali Brewing’s pilsner, which was very refreshing during the last 9 miles.  The second half of the trail was a dream!  I felt like I was riding on clouds all the way back to Talkeetna on a hard-packed trail.  Hard to imagine, but the temps hovered around the high 30s all day!  I love that ridge-line trail, and if I lived in Talkeetna I would make it my regular ride. 

The afterparty was a blast as usual.  This year Denali Brewing brewed a Brut IPA for the official Trio race beer.  After the awards ceremony the Last Train (featuring Ted Rosenzweig of Turnagain Brewing on base) rocked the party and I danced until my rubbery legs had to stroll on home!  Overall this is a quality event and I would encourage anybody who likes group riding, with a bit of a racing edge, to sign up next year.  Good job everybody who went and participated!  A huge thanks to Greg Matyas, from Speedway Cycles (home of the Fatback), Shawn Thelan from North Shore Cyclery in Talkeetna, and Sassan from Denali Brewing for the immaculate trail grooming and great hosting of this super fun event!!!

Susitna 100: Death of a Dream, or When Quitting is a Good Idea

Growing up in Alaska I always loved Hobo Jim’s iconic song I Did the Iditarod Trail.  I’m not a dog handler, so I always figured that mushing 1,049 miles to Nome was not in the cards for me.  In 2007 we flew to Nome to see the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and when I was there I met a guy who had skied the trail all the way to Nome, which took him about a month.  I bought him a beer and listened to his adventurous tale.  I thought he was a total badass, and told him he could sing Hobo Jim’s song without sounding like a poser.  A few years later I went to a lecture given by Roger Cowles about his ride to Nome on what he called a six pack bicycle, which is a mountain bike that had been modified to have three tires on the front and back, on three wheels that were welded together and had spokes that laced them all together.  His lecture was really inspirational to me and I felt like I would like to do something like that someday.  Then fat bikes came along, and I finally bit the bullet and got one in 2015, selling my fancy summer bike to help fund the purchase.  I told my wife about my plan to ride to Nome and she suggested I do it in an organized race with safety precautions, check points, and supply drops.  The race to Nome is called the ITI 1000 Iditarod Trail Invitational.  It starts in Knik and follows the Iditarod trail all the way to Nome.  It takes people about 30 days to complete and costs a small fortune.  You can’t just sign up for the ITI 1000,  you have to qualify by completing shorter races.  First you have to do two 100-mile winter endurance races, then you can sign up for the ITI 350, which ends in McGrath.  After that you can sign up for the bike race to Nome.  People also walk and ski this event. 

This year I entered the Susitna 100 with the intent of starting the process of qualifying for the ITI 1000.  I learned a lot about the race in advance: there would be tasty food all the way at the checkpoints, that a jar of peanut butter qualified for the 3000-calorie food requirement, and that 100 miles is a long way in the winter wilderness.  I started the race just fine.  Riding the first 22 miles to the first checkpoint at Point McKenzie was easy — I’d been riding a lot and 22 miles was about the length of my average long ride.  I should mention that it started snowing as the race began, and that there was already new snow on the trail from a previous snowfall.  The 12 miler trip up the swamp to Flathorn Lake was grueling and many people started to walk their bikes.  I arrived shaken and feeling a little sick to my stomach, but the spaghetti put me back into a pretty good feeling and I headed back out into the snowstorm.  The next 14 miles were worse, and I walked a good deal of the way, arriving at dark to mile 49 at the Five Star Tent checkpoint, which was just a tent.  After a nice rest and holding back my urges to puke, I stumbled out back onto the trail.  I was able to ride at a nice 5 mph pace, and in four more hours I arrived to Eagle Quest Lodge at mile 63.  I was feeling the BONK at this point.  I had fallen off the bike a few times from sheer fatigue.  When I arrived it was still snowing, and dark around 10pm.  I felt terrible — my knees were feeling pretty used up, and my legs were rubber.  I ate a delicious bacon and egg sandwich for dinner, which helped my stomach feel a bit better, before resting inside a heated cabin for a few hours.  I made several trips to the outhouse with an upset stomach, and kept my sandwich down, but I was feeling pretty weak.  It kept snowing and I could hardly walk after resting for a few hours.  At 2am I was thinking, “Do I want to do this for 30 days straight if I bike to Nome?”  That’s when it occurred to me that I surely didn’t. 

There were 37 miles remaining in the race and the weather report was for a ton more snow (approximately 12-18 inches).   I looked at my bike and saw that it was buried in new snow.  Fat bikes are good for winter biking, but when it’s snowing that much snowshoes and skis are really a better option (or a dog sled), as pushing a fully loaded bike through new snow is hard work at any distance.  I knew that when I was pushing my bike I was hitting 2 mph.  At that pace it would take me about 20 hours to complete the race.  It was right then that I decided to scratch the race.  My stomach was protesting, my knees and legs were done, and I didn’t even want to ride to Nome any more.  I called Maria, and she drove to get me on Sunday morning.  I officially scratched, my dream of riding to Nome was dead.  I later learned that 59 other racers also scratched, and only 39 hardy souls finished the race. 

I’m glad I learned this lesson so early in this endeavor.  I spent a lot of money just for the 100 mile race.  I had to buy new boots, new bags for my bike, a bivy sack, a ton more gear, and the entry fee was cheap at only $250.  The longer races are much more expensive.  The ITI 150 is $750, and I don’t even know how much the ITI 350 costs, as it isn’t even listed on the website.  I figured when all was said and done I would have spent $25,000 riding to Nome.  That’s a lot of money to do something that no one has really heard about, but the bragging rights would have been nice.  The price isn’t even the biggest problem.  The biggest expense is the sheer pain and discomfort that the trip would entail, not to mention possible loss of fingers, toes and/or other medical problems that this type of behavior brings about. 

I won’t be able to sing Hobo Jim’s song with the same gusto ever again.  Yet, I am so thankful I learned this lesson this weekend.  I have way more respect for adventure sports athletes than I did before.  The people who finished are athletes of a different caliber than this city-boy-artist.  I will never never never plan to ride more than 37 miles in winter, and I’ll skip the blizzards, thank you very much.  The death of a dream is a good thing when completing the goal is a bad idea.  Sometimes you gotta know when to quit and I am so glad I didn’t waste any more time with an idea that was poison.  Had the conditions been great and I finished the race easily, I may have made worse decisions that could have ended badly.  And hey, for $25,000, I could buy a snow-machine and ride it to Nome, or at least have a pretty good time doing something really fun instead!  I won’t quit fat biking, because I love doing that, but seriously, endurance racing is out!  Much respect to the finishers — may your recovery go smoothly!

15 Highlights from Our Trip to Russia, Amsterdam and Germany

~ by Maria Benner

We just got back from a month-long trip around the world!  We flew East from Anchorage to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia.  Then we flew to Irkutsk.  If you’ve ever played Risk, these places probably sound familiar.  Next, we flew to Kaliningrad, then Amsterdam, and the final leg was from Frankfurt back to Anchorage.  In total we spent 29.5 hours in the air.  The reason we went on this epic journey was because my Mom always dreamed of seeing Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world, and then we visited family.  So here are the 15 most memorable highlights of our trip.

1. Seeing the Pacific Ocean from the other side in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.  The beach had black magnetic sand!

Black sand beach (the sand is magnetic) on the Pacific Ocean in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Black sand beach (the sand is magnetic) on the Pacific Ocean in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

2. Eating delicious red caviar every day in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Red caviar (salmon roe) in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

3. Seems like each town in Russia has at least one magnificent church.  They are beautiful!

Kazan Church in Irkutsk.

Kafedral'nyy Sobor Svyatoy Zhivonachal'noy Troitsy in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Kafedral’nyy Sobor Svyatoy Zhivonachal’noy Troitsy in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Monastery of the Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elisaveta

Monastery of the Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elisaveta.

4. The food in Russia is ridiculously delicious, and very affordable.  Meat, bread, potatoes, beets, cucumbers, dumplings, and of course borsch are the main staples of the Russian diet.  Look at these huge chebureki (kind of like Indian fry bread with different fillings like meat, or potatoes, jam, cheese, etc.)


5. Riding a train that was pulled by an old Soviet-era steam engine.  We rode this train along Lake Baikal just like in the good ol’ days.

Soviet-era steam engine.

Soviet-era steam engine.

6. Seeing the seals that live in Lake Baikal.  They are called Nerpa in Russian.

7. Learning about Shamanism, and visiting holy Shamanistic sights on Lake Baikal.  People tie ribbons to these posts while making a wish, and when these ribbons blow in the wind, the wishes get sent to the gods.

8. Seeing the beautiful clear, clean blue water of Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal.

9. Riding around in Russian vans called “Uaziki” around Olkhon Island.  These vans have a lot of clearance, and can do some serious off-roading.

10. Swimming in Lake Baikal.  Sorry, no pictures.  There was a banya (Russian sauna) on the beach, so we reserved it for an hour, and got to warm up in the banya, and then dive into the icy cold waters of the lake.  We could only tolerate the cold water for 30 seconds max, before running back to the banya.

11. Russian parties, and shashliki (Shish kebab).  We went on an overnight trip to a former Soviet summer camp that had been remodeled into a resort, and our new Russian friends brought enough food for a month.  The pork was marinaded in mayonnaise and vinegar with onions, and it was delicious! 

12. Boat tour on the canals in Amsterdam.  In this photo you can see seven tunnels if you look closely.

Tunnels on a canal in Amsterdam

13. Driving on the Autobahn in Germany at 180kmh (112mph). I only got to drive that fast for about ten seconds before there was a speed limit zone, and after that there was a traffic jam.

14. Riding all over Germany on the amazing trains in first class.  When you buy a Eurail Pass, you automatically get first class.  I wish America had trains like this.First Class on a German train

15. Seeing the incredible painted ceiling at Asam Church Maria de Victoria in Ingolstadt, Germany.Asam Church Maria de Victoria Ingolstadt, Germany

There were many more tremendous moments on this trip, and I wrote down everything that happened every day in my journal.  We’re happy to be back home, but that was a trip we will never forget.  If you haven’t been to Russia, I highly recommend going.


Our Upcoming Trip to Russia and Germany

~ by Maria Benner

In 7 days, we’ll be boarding a flight on Yakutia Airlines to fly West across the Bering Sea from Anchorage to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia.  The flight is only 4.5 hours, but the time difference is 20 hours.  We’ll spend a couple days there checking out volcanoes and hot springs, and then we’ll fly to Irkutsk, the closest large-ish city to Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world.  We’re taking a multi-day tour to explore Lake Baikal, and its surroundings in famous Siberia.  After that we’re flying to Kaliningrad to visit my Aunt, and then traveling to Germany to visit more family.  From Germany we’re flying directly back to Anchorage, so essentially, we will have flown around the world by the end of this trip.  My Mom is the organizer of the whole trip, and we’re grateful that she’s letting Scott and I tag along.

During the trip Scott won’t be doing much painting, because he’s not bringing oil paint, since it takes a long time to dry, so we’re not going to release new beer paintings every Thirsty Thursday until we return.  He is planning on bringing a sketch book, and maybe some water colors.  Stay tuned to our Facebook and Instagram feeds to see pictures that we post along the way on this exciting journey.

And we’ll see what we can find out first hand about the whole Russia hacking America’s election business.

Cheers, or as the Russians say, “Za Zdorovie”!

Winter Trip to McCarthy | Good Idea, Bad Idea

~ by Maria Benner

Log Cabin in Alaska in winter

Did you watch the Animaniacs in the 1990s?  One of my favorite segments was Good Idea, Bad Idea.  On our recent trip to our cabin in McCarthy I kept recalling the comical cartoon as we stumbled through our winter adventure in a remote section of Alaska.

Good Idea: Driving over 300 miles to our cabin in McCarthy in a 4×4 Chevy truck. We had chains, a snow shovel, winter gear, and plenty of food and beer in case we got stuck.

Bad Idea: Not checking the weather report before departure.  Minutes after leaving our condo in Anchorage we were driving through a snow storm that lasted for half the drive.  Once we got to the McCarthy road we had sunny weather, and the first part of the road was not bad, but then the snow got deeper and we ended up getting stuck, and had to put on tire chains.  The drive was super slow after that point.

Good Idea: Buying a snow machine last fall so we could take all our stuff from the truck to the cabin quickly in the winter.  We parked it by our cabin up on blocks so it wouldn’t freeze to the ground, and covered it with a tarp.

Bad Idea: Buying a 1993 machine and neglecting to get it tuned up in Anchorage before bringing it to McCarthy.  In the winter we can’t drive all the way to the cabin, so we park about 3 miles away, and ski up to it.  Once we got there we uncovered the snow machine, dug it out, and tried starting it.  We were really close a couple times, but it just wouldn’t start.  So we had to ski back down to the truck, and haul everything that couldn’t freeze on sleds up to the cabin.  We arrived after midnight!  That was a really long day!  In the morning we got the snowmachine to start, and got the rest of our stuff up to the cabin with minimal effort!

Skiing up to the cabin with a few supplies.

snow machine snow mobile in Alaska

Scott hauling supplies with our snow machine across the frozen Kennicott River.

Good Idea: Picking a week to go to the cabin when we don’t have any major projects going on, or looming deadlines for about a week after our scheduled return date.

Bad Idea: Assuming that we can drive out of McCarthy on the scheduled day, and get back to Anchorage to complete projects before deadlines.  While we were in McCarthy there was a big snow storm that lasted for two days.  It was a gorgeous day, and we went for a long ski in the snow, but we were really nervous about how much snow was accumulating on the McCarthy Road, our only way out of McCarthy with our truck.  We have a big deadline at the end of the month, and if we got stuck in McCarthy for a few extra days, we would have missed out on a big opportunity.  The road only gets plowed when the airstrip in McCarthy has over 18″ of snow and a plow needs to get to the runway.

Snow storm in Alaska

Heavy snow storm.

Good Idea: Making a meal plan and bringing enough food for a week.  There are no stores or restaurants open in the winter in McCarthy.

Bad Idea: Forgetting to leave extra food at the cabin just in case we got stuck for a few extra days.  We followed our food plan, and ended up having a bit of extra food that could last for about two days, but we decided to stock the cabin with dried goods for future trips.

Good Idea: Going skiing on the glacier, visiting friends, and relaxing around the wood stove in the cabin.

Bad Idea: Planning to do a little bit of work during our week long vacation.  We brought our laptops and Scott packed his oil painting kit, and we did manage to work, but we were really tempted to play hooky the whole time.

glacier ice in Alaska glacier ice cave iceberg

Checking out an iceberg on the Kennicott Glacier.

Overall I have more fond memories of the trip, and am starting to forget all the inconveniences and challenges.  I can say we learned many lessons from our experience, and hopefully our future winter trips will go much more smoothly!

Our 5 Favorite Experiences in Oregon

~ by Maria Benner

We recently returned from a two-week trip to Washington, Oregon and Arizona.  In Washington and Arizona we visited family, but the reasons for going to Oregon were purely to have fun and to visit good friends from our college years.  Downhill skiing, long walks on the beach, visiting breweries, and eating donuts are all things that make us happy, so that’s what we did in Oregon.  Here are our 5 favorite experiences in the Beaver State.

5. Tillamook Cheese Factory. The last time we were in Tillamook more than 15 years ago, we forgot to bring our wallets to the cheese factory tour, so we couldn’t buy any ice cream at the end of the tour. I did not make the same mistake this time, and got to enjoy a delicious waffle cone with rocky road ice cream fresh from the factory. The new visitors center is under construction, but is scheduled to open sometime in 2018.

4. A donut shop on every corner in Portland.  We had been meaning to try a VooDoo donut for years, but didn’t want to stand in a long line. This time there was no line around 2pm. I ordered the Portland Cream (raised yeast shell filled with Bavarian cream topped with chocolate and two eyeballs, representing the vision of the great city of Portland), and Scott had a traditional cake donut.  Delicious!  Then we found out about the new donut place in town called Blue Star Donuts, so of course we had to test them as well. I ordered the Raspberry Rosemary Buttermilk cake donut, and got a bonus Blueberry Bourbon Basil donut for free, because the donuts were not very fresh that late in the afternoon.  I thought they were a bit dense, but Scott liked them more than his VooDoo donut.

Blue Star Donuts things to do in oregon

Blue Star Donuts

3. Craft Breweries. Oregon is a destination for world-class craft breweries that are creating avant-garde recipes, and reinventing the craft brew scene. We visited the new Pelican Brewing facility in Tillamook and Block 15 Brewing in Corvallis.  Block 15 really impressed us with its spot-on hazy IPAs and decadent imperial stouts. In Bend we went to Crux Fermentation Project, Boneyard Beer and Deschutes Brewing. We showed up to Crux during Sundown Hour when all beers are $1 off, and everyone watches the sunset while warming up around the fire pit, or playing lawn games. In Portland we sampled brews at Culmination Brewing, Cascade Brewing Barrel House, Great Notion Brewing, Fat Head’s Brewery, Back Pedal Brewing, and Hair of the Dog Brewing.  Scott painted live at Cascade (click here to read about that).  Every brewery had something unique to offer, and we couldn’t get enough of the fruity, hazy, hoppy IPAs and the barrel-aged sours.

Best breweries in Portland Great Notion Brewing

Tasters at Great Notion Brewing in Portland.

2. Skiing at Mt. Bachelor. We rented ski equipment, and hit the slopes of Mt. Bachelor for the fist time. The resort is only a half-hour drive from Bend. Unfortunately we didn’t have good luck on snow.  There wasn’t much of it, and the groomed runs were icy.  The Summit was closed, so we missed out on skiing a large percentage of the terrain.  The views were incredible though, and we had a great day outside in the sunshine.  We’ll have to come back when conditions are better.

Mt Bachelor ski area

View of Three Sisters from the top of Mt. Bachelor

1. Oregon Coast. We couldn’t go to Oregon without visiting the Oregon Coast, so we booked a hotel room with an ocean view in Rockaway Beach for one night.  We got really lucky on the weather, and enjoyed a five-mile walk on the beach during sunset.  The next day we experienced typical winter weather, but we left it behind as we drove over the mountain pass to Portland.

Oregon Coast sunset rockaway beach

Sunset on the Oregon Coast.

People ask us why we would ever want to leave beautiful Alaska.  Well, we try to only go to remarkable places, and Oregon is definitely one of them.


15 Highlights from Our Trip to Iceland, Russia and Germany

~ by Maria Benner

We just returned from an epic trip to Iceland, Russia and Germany.  The trip was my mom’s idea — she wanted to show us the real Russia.  On the way there, we had a layover in Iceland, so we decided to extend it for two days, and on the way back we extended our layover in Germany for a week.  In Iceland we stayed two nights in Reykjavik.  In Russia we flew into Moscow, took a train to a small village called Izmaylovo, then cruised from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  In Germany we flew into Frankfurt, and took the train to Bacharach, then went on a boat ride up the Rhein River to Koblenz, and took trains to Baden Baden, Munich, and Rothenburg.

So, here are 15 highlights from this month-long journey.

  1. The sights on the Golden Circle route in Iceland, which are Þingvellir National Park with a rift valley caused by the separation of 2 tectonic plates, the Geysir that shoots water 70 meters in the air, and the incredibly gorgeous Gullfoss Waterfalls.

2. Red Square in Moscow.  This was my third time visiting Red Square, and each time I can’t believe I’m standing there, because it’s such a famous and powerful place.  I was hoping Putin’s motorcade would drive out the Kremlin gates, but no luck.

3. Going on a hay ride on a little buggy in a small village called Izmaylovo in Russia with our new friend we called Uncle Bob.  We also cut birch branches for the banya.

Hay ride

4. Taking a real Russian banya, which is a Russian sauna heated by a big brick stove.  We made brooms out of birch branches and whacked each other with them.  Supposedly that’s good for blood circulation.

Russian Banya

5. Going for a walk in a pristine Russian pine forest.

Russian pine forest.

6. Once we got on the river cruise, our ship had to go through many locks, which are devices used for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. Here’s a time-lapse video of the last lock we went through.

7. The Pogost in Kizhi, a church built without a single nail.  It has 30,000 wooden shingles on the onion domes.  The church was being restored, so this is the best picture I got of it, without showing the construction work.  Restoration should be complete in 2020.

The Pogost in Kizhi.


8. The Vodka Museum.

Vodka Museum in Russia.

9. St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which took 40 years to build.  Those green columns are solid malachite.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

10. Peterhof Palace, the Versailles of Russia.

Peterhof Palace

11.  Staying in a castle hostel in Bacharach Germany.  The castle was on top of a hill, and there were 400 steps up to our room.

Burg Stahleck Castle

12.  Seeing the Lorelei on the Rhein River, which is a rock headland.  Legends say that a maiden named the Lorelei lives on the rock and lures fishermen to their death with her song.  In high school we had to memorize a very long poem in German for Frau Fischer’s class, and everyone had to recite it in front of the whole class.


13. Bathing in the mineral waters of Roman baths called Friedrichsbad in Baden Baden.  The Romans were the first to construct bathing facilities there in order to benefit from the special water.  Men and women all bathe naked here.  Sorry, no pictures.

14. Drinking beer at the famous Hofbräuhaus in München.

15. Last, but not least, is the tour with the Night Watchman of Rothenburg.  This man came up with a genius idea to dress up as the night watchman from several centuries ago, and do a one-hour tour every night in English.

The Night Watchman of Rothenburg

This was definitely one of the best trips of my life!  Thank you Mom for making it happen!!!