Reader mail: Alaska, ferries, birding, apples

One of these days, I’ll get “Roads Traveled” online, so reader mail can be published in its entirety. Until then, here’s a delightful dip into the mailbag.

“There is a single birding festival coming up that features field trips which investigate enormous numbers of migrating birds and their habitats in three states: Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa,” writes Ric Zarwell, Lansing, Iowa, referring to the second annual Rivers & Bluffs Fall Birding Festival that will be there Nov. 7-9.

“In our inaugural festival last year, we had 175 people from 39 cities in four states attend. Twenty-five of these people were Russian visitors who were in La Crosse and drove the 40 miles downriver because they wanted to see our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, up close and personal.”

There will be programs about the bald eagle and the barred owl, boat tours to see thousands of tundra swans and more. For details about the agenda and fees, send an e-mail to Ric at zarxzar@salamander.com.

I usually concentrate on Wisconsin and its border cities, but couldn’t resist doing a piece on the extraordinary state of Alaska. Several of you were quick to respond..

“We recently moved from the Anchorage area to Janesville,” writes Joe LeBeau. “I had spent 31 years working in Alaska, in most of the locations that you mentioned in your story.  I have always thought that Alaska was so large, a proper vacation there should be split over four years.”

Joe gave an approving nod to our Inside Passage experience, then offered other travel advice. Here are tidbits:

“The Denali Highway is slow moving, but offers some of the most spectacular automobile vistas outside of Denali National Park.  Alaskans favor the Denali Highway for the fishing and hunting opportunities offered every few miles along the road.  Caribou, moose and bear are not far from the road at any time of the year.”

Or, “you could return to Anchorage, fly to Nome, Kotzebue or to the smaller communities of Dillingham, Bethel and off to some of the smaller villages to really get a picture of Alaskan life.”

“For the fourth year, you could visit the smaller communities along the Aleutian chain, Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, even the village of Akutan, and go down to Adak. Allow two weeks, to avoid missing connections back to the mainland.

And then? “You can start over, as many of the manmade things in the first and second year will have changed,” Joe says.  

“Thanks for helping us relive our recent trip,” writes Bruce Gregg, Madison, who with his wife and another couple drove a rental vehicle some 1,800 miles in two weeks, then used the Alaska Marine Highway system ferry and small planes to get around during a third.

“I am glad you mentioned the Sitka Raptor Center, for it is a gem not to be missed,” Bruce says. “After almost three hours there, we had to leave, as it was closing. But we have become members and even ‘adopted’ a bird.”

If you want to do the same, go to www.alaskaraptor.org or call (800) 643-9425.

Dianne Kurtz, La Crosse, writes about her satisfaction with an S.S. Badger trip across Lake Michigan.
“My ride was round trip, so I had two opportunities to learn more about this method of transportation,” she says. “The ride to Michigan was indeed a rocky ride – the sway of the ship made several people very sick to their stomach, but most of us managed to keep it all together.  I was fortunate in that I sat by a seasoned traveler who suggested I not look out the window – which was revealing water, then clouds and rain.
“The trip home several days later was a very different story.  Most of us spent several hours on the deck, enjoying the sight of nothing but water and an occasional bird. The sound of silence was wonderful and was interrupted only by the creaking of the ship as it glided through the water.  
“When we finally spotted trees and land in the distance, we felt like we had indeed been on a journey, a very relaxing journey.”

The S.S. Badger links Manitowoc and Ludington, Mich. For more, go to www.ssbadger.com or call (888) 337-7948. The last day of sailing is Oct. 12; daily service resumes in mid May.

“I make several trips a year to Muskegon, Mich.,” writes Dale Bender, Madison, who asked for more info about the new Lake Express carferry service that will begin next spring. “When? Where? How much? Who is Lake Express? Will it run all year round?”

Some details still need to be worked out, but the Port of Milwaukee’s Internet site, www.port.mil.wi.us, says Lake Express, LLC is being organized by Lubar & Co., a Milwaukee based investment firm. Its 192-foot high-speed catamaran is being built in Mobile, Ala.

“Among amenities are a ride control system that will dampen the unwanted motions of the vessel caused by lake waves, virtually eliminating sea sickness; comfortable seating; and a child’s play area,” we are told online. “The vessel will also be equipped with a full elevator to assist passengers to the passenger deck level,” and the structure is declared to be “the first high-speed auto/passenger ferry to operate within the continental United States.”

Tentative start-up date is June 1; sailings are to continue until Dec. 31, then resume May 1, 2005. Fares are expected to be similar to the S.S. Badger’s, which are $44-47 one way, $72-78 round trip; there are discounts for children and senior citizens. It costs $49 to transport a car, one way, on the S.S. Badger.

“We read your article about Wisconsin marking the year of the barn,” writes David Miller, West Salem (La Crosse County), who has designed a corn maze in the shape of a barn.

“As we have a large number of schools and youth groups going through the maze, we would like to get more interesting facts and figures about barns. We would like to put up a display of barn memorabilia in our maze shop.”

We put David in touch with Ruth Olson at the University of Wisconsin, the best barn expert that we know. For more about his maze, go to www.hiddentrailscornmaze.com or call (608)786-2489.

We also have learned about a corn maze near Union Grove (Racine County) that is shaped like two hogs riding a motorcycle. To learn more about Moyer’s Motorcycle Adventure Corn Maze, go to www.moyermaze.com or call (262) 878-3166.

And a big thanks goes to Merle Hill, La Crosse, who sent us a story that he wrote about the Oliver Mason Hill Barn near Tomah, a structure rich in history. “There are more pitiful, sagging old barns (that need a match!) in the country now than the ones still standing and at least marginally useful,” Merle notes, who calls his story a tribute “to the tough and resourceful men who built barns a century ago.”

Alice Spanel, Eau Claire, provided us with a tribute to Bayfield, stating that she enjoys everything from sea caves and ferry rides to fish boils and lighthouses.

“To me, it’s a place of beauty to behold,” she says. “Before you leave, don’t forget to enjoy the Apple Festival. You’ll find so many little surprises in quaint little places.”

The Apple Festival – with apple chili, apple bratwurst, apple dumplings and much more – is Oct. 3-5; for details, call (800) 447-4094 or go to www.bayfield.com.