On our way to Whittier we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The Center provides a home for animals that were either rescued due to injury or because they were found orphaned at a very young age and have little chance for survival in the wild. One of the exceptions is the wood bison program which is run in cooperation with Canada with a mission to restore the wood bison to their former Alaskan habitat. This is the only wood bison herd in the United States. The conservationists expect to release them into an area in the interior of Alaska sometime in March, 2015. At the center are three grizzlies, a couple of black bears, porcupine, moose, musk ox, reindeer a bald eagle, caribou, a fox, a pair of lynx and sitka black tailed deer.
The grizzlies were the most popular and I spent most of my time watching these beautiful giants. Two of the grizzlies are brother and sister and there is another female with them. When I first approached the grizzly enclosure I only saw the females. I was much impressed with their size, especially after watching their smaller neighbors, the black bears which I have seen in California’s Yosemite Park. But then big brother comes along, a giant among them. Although I saw a few grizzlies in Denali I was nowhere near this close to them. These are truly impressive animals.
Our next stop was Whittier, Alaska, a tiny town that sits along the Kenai Peninsula. We would only stay for less than 24 hours before picking up the ferry to take us to Valdez.
To get to Whittier we had to drive through a 13,200 foot tunnel that is a multi-use road / rail line. It’s only one lane and the traffic queues on each end of the tunnel awaiting an opportunity to pass through. The trains have priority to meet their schedule and the traffic alternates in 15 minute intervals. Once in Whittier, we realized just how tiny this town was. It took us just a couple of minutes to walk through the town of 222 (2013 population). There were only a handful of stores and a couple of restaurants. We were a little surprised to see a cruise ship docked here considering that we didn’t see many other tourists during our stroll. It would be hard to miss a couple thousand cruisers! Later we saw the railroad tracks for the train that picks up the passengers straight from the dock and takes them onto other destinations beyond the town.
We boarded the ferry to Valdez and spent a rainy couple of days there. After Whittier, Valdez seemed like a small city! It’s the end point for the Trans-Alaska pipeline which moves the oil from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields across Alaska to the port of Valdez. The town made headlines in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef, releasing over 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. “The Atlantic” website has a beautiful photo essay covering the 25th anniversary of the spill titled “The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: 25 Years Ago Today“.
We visited the museum which describes the spill and its continued impact on the environment and the social impact on the fishermen and Native Alaskans whose lives were changed forever by the spill. Exxon fought the $5 Billion dollar punitive judgement against it eventually paying only $507.5 Million. In response, a shame pole has been erected by the Alaskan Natives of Cordova at the Ilanka Cultural Center.
We spent some time watching people fishing along the docks in the marina for salmon lost in its maze. These salmon barely missed the entrance to their native spawning stream and ended up here. It made me incredibly sad to see them here, their epic journey at an end with no hope of achieving their life’s mission. Considering that I have no sense of direction and I could completely empathize with these navigationally challenged individuals. If reincarnation is the way of the universe then I hope that I never return as a salmon considering this would surely be my fate.
Our time in Alaska was quickly drawing to an end. We had a ferry to catch out of Haines in two days and 690 miles to cover in that time. This made for a couple of very long days of driving. The views and incredible landscapes made it an easy journey and one that I didn’t want to end too quickly.
We arrived in Haines, Alaska sometime in late afternoon. Just in time for dinner. Our first stop was the ferry terminal to see if they would let us camp in their parking lot since we would be boarding at 7:30 am which means they expect you in line by 5:30 am. We got the ok then we found something to eat. It’s been a lot of fish ‘n chips and hummus throughout Alaska and today wasn’t any different. As you can probably imagine, there are not a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables to be found but surprisingly, we consistently found that the restaurants were out of salmon! Go figure?!
After dinner we drove around the town for awhile and we were lucky enough to see two more bald eagles. The guide books say that there are bald eagles everywhere in Haines although we saw just these two. Given our very limited wildlife sightings we weren’t surprised that we didn’t see many bald eagles. Maybe when we return some day the eagles, bears, wolves, foxes, salmon, and others will reveal themselves to us.
We boarded the Alaska Marine Ferry for our second time through the Inside Passage. This time through we would be in Juneau for a few hours; just long enough to go see the Mendenhall Glacier. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to do the hike to get closer to the glacier but the views from the visitor center were wonderful. Nugget Falls, some distance to the right of the glacier ran directly under the glacier until the 1970’s. You can see from the photo below that the glacier has retreated quite a bit from those earlier days. Check here for a chronology of the glacier’s retreat along with some photographs of the glacier from earlier times.
Ketchikan was the next town that we visited during our trip through the Inside Passage. It was a very wet walk into town to the visitor center where we picked up a map of the town’s totem poles. We visited the Totem Heritage Center where salvaged Tlingit and Haida totem poles were on display. As we passed over Ketchikan Creek Darryl noticed a group of salmon in the waters. As we looked closer we noticed that the whole creek was packed with hundreds of salmon! It was the most amazing sight seeing the creek literally shimmering with life.
Our time in Alaska has drawn to a close and our wild, beautiful adventure in this beautiful State was more spectacular than I expected. We are so grateful for this opportunity that we have to make this epic journey and we definitely made the right decision when we added Alaska to the itinerary.
On our way to Anchorage we passed through Wasilla, AK and everyone knows that it was in this small town that the career of a political pundit and social pop icon Sarah Palin was launched. When we arrived I looked around and was surprised that I couldn’t see Russia from anywhere. Perhaps Sarah lives on a small knoll that rises just high enough to see across the Bering Strait? Darryl looked up her address and we went to take a look. Alas, the gates to her estate weren’t open and nobody was waiting for our arrival. Her home is along the highway and sits along the coast of a small inland lake. I seriously doubt the validity of that international experience. 🙂 Which reminds me of how much I loved that Saturday Night Live came to life again during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Tina Fey was hilarious and I still crack up whenever I think of the very pregnant Amy Poehlin’s rap bit during Palin’s cameo on SNL (check it out here: https://screen.yahoo.com/palin-rap-000000488.html).
With nothing else to offer us, we left Wasilla and stopped in the hippy town of Talkeetna, Alaska. It’s just over 100 miles north of Anchorage with about 1,000 full time residents. We arrived on a day with a band playing in the park, cruise ship tour buses unloading their passengers and political activists gathering signature along the street. Although we were only there for a day, I really liked the town’s vibe. The restaurants served tasty comfort food with portions that satisfied the appetite.
While walking through town I noticed a couple that was collecting signatures for a petition to stop the building of a dam on the Susitna River. Talkeetna is a small town that calls the banks of the Susitna home. The dam would produce a mere 300 MW of energy (enough to power ~180k homes) and proponents say would contribute to the State’s renewable energy goals. Opponents view the $5.2 billion project as a massive misuse of government funds with a devastating environmental impact on the salmon runs and the river related tourism industry. The environmental impact of dams vs their energy output is being seriously questioned and we have bumped up against the debate through our travels in California, Nevada and now Alaska. The couple gathering signatures opposing the Susitna Dam recommended that we watch the documentary Dam Nation which portrays the failure of dams across the nation and worldwide.
I find the debates on renewable energy fascinating from a couple of perspectives. On the one hand, most people would agree that the use of fossil fuels is unsustainable yet environmentalists can’t decide on what is the best renewable energy solution for a particular area since all of these solutions have some negative environmental impacts. On the other hand, I don’t hear much discussion about how to reduce our energy usage overall. The conversation seems to be focused on energy needs from the supply side and very little discussion about the demand side and how to curtail it.
After signing the petition and adding our names to their mailing list we went to the Salmon Center and watched the last half of a documentary on Pebble Mine. Just before leaving on this trip a friend of ours who is an avid fly fisherman told us about Pebble Mine. It’s a proposed gold mine to be built in Bristol Bay. A poisonous concoction of chemicals is required to mine for gold and the local fisherman were fighting the mining conglomerate and the state in an attempt to block the mine. Although the mining authorities maintained that they would put in place safety mechanisms to protect the pristine waters of Bristol Bay, the fisherman didn’t have faith that an accident wouldn’t happen. They have witnessed the aftermath of the Valdez spill upon the local community and their financial and environment ruin. These individuals have been compensated a mere fraction of the amount that was promised and the environment is still soiled from the oil spill from more than 20 years ago. Currently, the funding for Pebble Mine has dried up but I’m sure that once the price of gold hits some pre-set target amount the investors will be back and pushing for the mine again.
The two activists had an interesting perspective on Alaska and its relationship with the lower 48. They feel that Alaska is like a third world country in the sense that US companies invest in Alaska only so they can extract the wealth of minerals and resources that can be extracted from the State with no care for the environment or the residents of the State. I would agree that Alaskans do not seem to be wealthy in the least and most of them seem to be just surviving. I was surprised to see such an absence of wealth in the state considering the size of the oil, lumber, fishing, and tourism industries. While driving through the Alaskan towns and cities we never came upon that “wealthier” section of town. We wondered where the wealth was and after talking with this couple we might have been provided a clue as to the seeming absence of wealth in Alaska. Perhaps it’s because the large industries are not locally owned and the wealth is exported along with the resources in exactly the same way as in any mineral rich third world nation. My assumption before coming to Alaska was that people didn’t have to work because of the oil dividend given to all Alaskans who have lived in the State for a year or longer. I thought that this dividend was substantial but after looking at how Alaskans live, it certainly doesn’t seem to be based on our conversation with the activists.
We really enjoyed our time in Talkeetna and considered staying for an extra day but decided that we needed to move on toward Anchorage since we recently decided to add Valdez to our itinerary. This addition would cut a couple of days out of our time along the Kenai Peninsula but we thought it would be worth it. Valdez kept coming up as a must-see from fellow travelers that we met along our trip because the town is set within a stunning landscape and because the drive from Valdez to Haines is considered to be another epic beauty. So we packed up and continued south.
We spent only a couple of days in Anchorage. With the same bad timing as we had in Wrangell we arrived in Juneau the day after a road race. At this point I’m not sure that I could run a half marathon let alone a 10k. I’m sure that our timing will get better and my fitness will improve again but until then I’ll continue to focus my efforts on finding the best restaurant in town. 🙂 And I did just that when we stumbled upon a really nice place in Anchorage called Snow City Cafe! Later that evening we drove out along the waterfront where there was a beautiful view of the city.
We met another couple who was admiring the view. They were Canadians who have lived in Detroit for the past ten years or more. It was fascinating to hear their perspectives on universal health care (Canadian style) compared to the US system (both pre and post Affordable Care Act). They are not so sure that the Canadian system is the right solution since they don’t believe that the government is efficient in its handling of resources. But they also agreed that perhaps the free market and private industry might not have the best interest of the individual in mind when striving for greater profits. We debated the issues for a couple of hours and it was a very civil conversation. I only wish that our politicians could have a civil discourse and actually make some inroads on the issue of healthcare in the US!
The following day we went for a run along the river near our campgrounds. We encountered all of these fisherman lined up along the river using the most interesting fishing technique. They were basically hitting the water with a quick overhand motion and almost slapping the water with the lure. We didn’t see anyone catch anything with this method but the men that we spoke with assured us that it was an effective way to catch the salmon as they headed up the river.
Later the following day I had a riding lesson at Rockin B horse riding camp. My instructor was Amanda who rode at the collegiate level. I’m really enjoying my riding lessons. By taking lessons from various riding instructors I’m not only learning how to ride more competently but also about the differences in instruction techniques and riding styles. It’s also nice to ride horses that have a bit more personality than trail horses that follow each other nose to tail along a trail. In the lesson I actually have to exert some level of control over the horse. As you can see in the photo, I needed a little assistance from Amanda to encourage Sierra to maintain a trot while I practiced posting.
After my lesson we made our way down the Kenai peninsula to Seward, Alaska. Anchorage was nice enough but I really enjoy the smaller Alaskan towns and with over 300,000 residents, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city. Everywhere we turned in Anchorage there seemed to be road construction going on. It reminded me of a comment that I heard at some point during the trip where an Alaskan told us that there were two seasons in Alaska, winter and construction. I wasn’t enjoying the Anchorage construction season!
The drive from Anchorage to Seward was AMAZING! The mountains rise up from the roadside along one side of the road as you drive along a river for parts of the drive. Because the mountains rise up so abruptly from the sea they seem grander and more rugged than other mountain ranges that I’ve driven through. The blue skies and clear rivers and seas pop against the dark greens of the mountains creating an unbelievably fantastic scene that is a truly spectacular experience.
Once in Seward we found a place to eat and then afterwards took a walk along the marina. Just behind the restaurant there were tourists that had just returned from their day of deep sea fishing. I spoke with a guy who was standing next to this wheel barrow overflowing with a variety of fishes (monk fish, cod, halibut, salmon, rock fish, flounder and others). The guy flies from Boston to Alaska every couple of years to fish. Once cleaned, packaged and frozen, his catch is shipped back to Boston and will last him and his family a couple of years until his next fishing trip.
The next day we drove out to Exit Glacier. As we were walking along the overlook trail there were numbered sign posts along the way which marked where the toe of the glacier once reached and the year. Over the past 10 years the glacier has retreated over 1,000 feet. At the end of the paved footpath is now an overlook where we can look at the glacier in the distance. If we had arrived just 10-13 years earlier we would be touching the glacier. If you read the TripAdvisor reviews of Exit Glacier you will see the comments left by many lamenting that they weren’t able to touch the glacier this year as they had just ten years prior. This has been the common refrain from fellow tourists starting on the ferry and now carried through at the glacier visits on land. They talk about the receding glaciers and how different Alaska looked just a decade or more ago. Once inside the visitor center I was reminded again of the glacial retreat when looking at glacier photos taken over the years.
Like many, I have been concerned about global warming for many years but actually traveling to Alaska and bearing witness to the physical changes in our environment has been shocking to me. That we continue to debate what to do to reduce our impact on the environment rather than actually taking any meaningful action is foolhardy. I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t until this trip that I really internalized the warnings from the many documentaries that I’ve watched and articles and books that I’ve read. Alaska is truly awe inspiring and thought provoking. I only hope that we still have a chance to reverse some of the damage that we’ve caused to our wonderful world.
On our last day in Seward we took the boat tour to the Kenai Fjords to see the tidewater glaciers. During this trip we would pass harbor seals sun bathing on ice bergs and tidewater glaciers dipping their toes into the icy waters.
The farthest point of the tour is at the face of a tidewater glacier which is famous for its calving events and the noise that it makes as the house size chunks of ice fall into the waters. Once we arrived at the glacier our captain positioned the ship so that we had a panoramic view of the glacier. The temperature plummeted as soon as we arrived to the front of the glacier but I barely noticed the cold as I took in the beauty around me. It was impossible for me to really comprehend its size. Looking at the monochromatic sheet of ice doesn’t allow the brain to process scale but once we heard the calving of a small chunk of ice, the sound confirmed what the eyes couldn’t; these were massive pieces of ice falling into the sea. The ice might look like the size of a snow ball but the sound confirmed that it these pieces were the size of a car, house or even a multi-story building.
I captured on video an icefall from Northwestern Glacier where a section of the glacier breaks away and slides off getting smashed to bits as it slides down the rock face. It was incredible to be there and you can hear the amazement of my fellow tourists and the beautiful sounds of the glacier.
After our Kenai Fjords tour we spent an hour at the Sea Center in Seward. There was a sea bird exhibit where I captured a photo of my favorite bird, the puffin. During mating season they grow these huge colorful beaks. They spend their winters out to sea and lose the large beak.
The Sea Center was established after the Exxon Valdez spill funded by the settlements paid to Alaska. When I looked through the major donors list I noted that most of the names were those of energy, coal, and petroleum companies. Their board of directors is also made up of leaders from these same organizations. I get it that these science institutes need funding but I have trouble reconciling how these same science institutes manage the conflict of interest in their science and the funding and management sources. The exhibits were interesting but I took it all in with a shade of skepticism.
There is so much of Alaska to explore and our short 5 weeks in this beautiful land was too quickly drawing to an end. The last legs of our journey are ahead of us. Our next stop will be Whittier from where we’ll pick up a ferry to Valdez then drive to Haines and a final trip through the Inside Passage. I have a long list of places we need to return to some day. Top of the list is the Kenai Peninsula and over to Bristol Bay. Until next time.
This next part of the trip is what I was looking forward to ever since we put Alaska on our itinerary. In my research I read that the Denali Highway was perhaps the most beautiful highway in Alaska. It’s a hard packed gravel road that runs east / west across the tundra of central Alaska. There are no towns or cities to mar the landscape. Just wide open road and plenty of open spaces to set up a roadside camp.
The more direct route to Denali National Park is only about 120 miles. Instead I put the Denali Highway as a “must do” on our itinerary which added another 220 miles to our route. It was well worth the additional miles!
So, instead of heading southwest out of Fairbanks we drove southeast which took us straight to the North Pole! I remember sending letters to Santa Claus addressed to the North Pole when I was in grade school. Now, some years later (better to not think about how many years), I get to see where they ended up!
We stopped just long enough for the photo and then back on the road. We wanted to make it to Delta Junction before the end of the day since we only had a couple of days to complete the drive. There are only a few dates that we have to meet on this trip and our campsite reservation in Denali is one of them. We spent the night at the Delta State Recreation campgrounds just outside Delta Junction. We really enjoyed the change of scenery moving away from forests and into a land of braided rivers and distant mountain ranges across tundra dotted with tundra lakes.
Our next day was all about the Denali Highway. At this point of the trip we were wondering when we would actually start to see some wildlife. Before the trip I read something about the multitudes of bald eagles and that they were everywhere you looked. So far the bald eagle count is two and that was back in Wrangell. I thought that I would be braking for wildlife as it crossed the road in front of us. The only wildlife that we have stopped for has been captured in photographs that we admired at the fair. But now things were about to change. I could feel it. We would be driving across the middle of Alaska; no towns and wide open wilderness.
This is the beauty that we saw for hundreds of miles but still no wildlife. We stopped at a restaurant just a few miles into our Denali Highway experience to get a late lunch. As we were parking I noticed a set of antlers peaking out of the back of a pick-up driving along the highway. And then we saw in the parking lot another pick-up with a caribou carcass in the truck bed. This wasn’t exactly how I envisioned my wildlife encounters to be.
We were sent away from the restaurant because they had been over-run with customers all morning and weren’t prepared to offer any more service until later in the evening. Turned away, we went back out on the road to another restaurant about 50 miles away. The number of trucks and campers along the road was much more than we expected to see. This is supposed to be open space with rarely other vehicles on the road. What was going on?
We got our answer at the next restaurant. It was opening day of caribou hunting season! Everyone was out and getting set up for a week of hunting, or less time if they killed their quarry earlier which we had already witnessed. This changed our plans for the day as we drove by hunters all along the road. They were out on their quads, rifles in hand and ready to shoot. The hunting was on both sides of the road and every open spot for camping was taken. Originally we planned to go out for a hike once we set up camp but we weren’t sure if wearing brightly colored clothes would really keep us safe from a stray bullet. We finally found an awesome little camping spot late in the evening. The spot was atop a small hill that was just steep enough to discourage most of the campers. We had the place all to ourselves and settled in for the evening. We still have yet to see any wildlife but we know it’s out there based on the number of caribou being hauled out of the area.
We drove the last forty miles of the Denali Highway then made our way to our camp site in Denali National Park. We had dinner outside the park at Denali Park Salmon Bake. We were surprised to see a Princess Hotel and other cruise line restaurants this far north from their ports. We saw many cruise line buses transporting their passengers to Denali from Anchorage. Consistent with the other cruise line port of calls we saw the familiar signs posted in a few restaurants and business announcing that they were Alaska owned and operated. The Salmon Bank restaurant was one of these Alaskan owned business and one of the better options that we’ve found in Alaska. We were not impressed with the food at the restaurants in Denali National Park. We later learned that the park service actually subcontracts their food service to Aramark, the same company that provides airline food service. This explained why the food was so bad. 😦
The next day we awoke early to catch our bus tour of the Kantishna Experience. This tour takes you all the way to the end of the park. Private cars are only allowed on the first few miles of road into the park and to go further you must take one of the park shuttles or tours. Our bus would take us 92 miles through the park, one way. Our bus driver, Sheryl Paxton, was also a certified interpretive guide and very knowledgeable about the park and its history. She had stories to fill the 15 hour day that we had with her.
While we were standing in line awaiting the bus we listened to stories from our fellow passengers about the wild life that they had seen during their travels. It seemed that all of the couples surrounding us had stories of seeing grizzlies, caribou, bald eagles, and wolves. We warned them that we had some sort of curse on us and that we haven’t seen anything but two bald eagles during our almost three weeks in Alaska. They didn’t seem fazed at all by our curse and assured us that our luck was about to change.
From the beginning of our tour the bus had mechanical issues which eventually required a replacement to be brought out for us. We waited at the Teklanika rest stop, about 30 miles into the tour, for over an hour for the replacement. We passed the time enjoying the incredible views at an overlook above a river. Most of us were out along the overlook when a grizzly ambled down the river just below us feasting on the berries growing along the banks. I was in heaven!!
Another bus showed up and now the grizzly had a packed house watching him eat. The bus driver was keeping a close eye on him and told us that if the grizzly headed into the bush just below us then we all needed to go back into the bus because he would likely be headed up into the parking lot. He just finished warning us when the bear turned toward us up the hill. The majority of us (myself included) turned tail and headed for the safety of the buses. A few stayed behind but pretty soon we saw a group running toward the buses and close behind was the bear walking just a few feet from the bus across the parking lot! He was huge! Darryl managed to get a couple of photos before the grizzly disappeared into the bush.
Our replacement bus finally arrived and we got on our way. Not 20 minutes later and we came across this family of bears tearing up the mountainside looking for squirrels. What a day so far!
When I got up the morning of the tour I had already lowered my expectations about seeing any wildlife and was ready to accept a day where we wouldn’t see anything. So I set all my hopes on seeing a glimpse of Denali. It’s rare to see Denali during the summer months and when you do get a glimpse of her you need to appreciate it because the next minute she might have covered herself up behind a thick layer of clouds. I told myself that it would be an awesome day if I could get just one glimpse of Denali. So I was ready, camera in hand, when Shirley told us to get our cameras ready because around the next bend would be our first opportunity to see if Denali wished to reveal herself today. And wow!!! What a spectacular sight awaited us! Denali was out and in full glory!!
My day could have ended right then and there but we still had many more hours ahead of us. It turned out to be an incredible day driving through Denali. Grizzlies, moose, caribou, dall sheep, pica and Denali, this was better than I had hoped for!
After our tour we went to the Salmon Bake Restaurant for dinner. We were just finishing when we noticed another couple from our tour group, Meg and Mark from New Zealand. We started talking with them about the day and before long we invited them to sit down with us as we chatted late into the evening about their travels and their life stories. Mark had an interesting take on the life that they’ve created for themselves and described it as Lifestyle Engineering. His concept is basically saying that you prioritize the things that are important to you and engineer a lifestyle (work and play) that allows you to realize a balance between these priorities. This idea resonated with Darryl and I since we have spent many hours talking about what sort of life do we want after this trip and here Mark had a fancy name for it. Over the past few months Darryl and I have spent a lot of time talking with other couples about how they have created a lifestyle that allows them to balance their passions with making a living to support their lifestyles. We expect that our lives after this trip will look very different from what they were before we started the trip.
The following day we had tickets for another bus tour through the park but after spending over 15 hours in a bus the previous day we decided to bail on that plan and gave away our tickets. We spent the day enjoying the park on foot and exploring the trails around the campground. Later in the afternoon we went to see the sled dog expedition at the Denali Headquarters. These huskies have each run over 2,000 miles through Denali’s back country during the winter months patrolling and delivering construction and other materials to sites that are inaccessible by truck. The Denali huskies were more laid back than Hugh’s racing dogs and the were much larger. They were all still very excited about their jobs but once they finished their short expedition run for the tourists they laid down and calmly waited for the park ranger to finish her presentation. Hugh’s dogs were amped from the moment Hugh started harnessing the team until the dogs were finished with their workout and returned to their dens.
Our last day in Denali was spent walking the Savage River trails. These trails are along park road at the farthest point where private cars can travel to without a special permit. It was a beautiful ending to our time in Denali. I’m sure we would have extended our stay if there were campsites available but unfortunately Denali was fully booked. We left feeling like we had really experienced Alaska and a little bit of it’s wilder side. Now to Anchorage but first a short detour to see Alaska’s most famous pop culture icon. Stay tuned!
After our time at Laughing Eyes Kennel we had a quick lunch and did a load of laundry before getting on the road to Fairbanks. The drive to Fairbanks was uneventful and we found a beautiful campsite a few miles outside of town at Tors Trailhead State Campground which is along Chena Hot Springs Road.
The next morning we felt the need for a workout so we tried to find the nearby trails. Unfortunately, every trail we found seemed to end in a mosquito infested bog. After getting bit up and going nowhere we ran back to the campsite and ran loops around the campground. Not the most interesting run I’ve ever been on but we were among the trees and ran along a river for a very small portion of the loop. With the workout over we went to Fairbanks to prepare for our drive along the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle.
We headed north out of Fairbanks toward the Dalton Highway. Just a few miles north of Fairbanks is a viewpoint of the Alaskan Pipeline where we stopped to get a close-up look at the pipeline. We met a local who asked us about our XP and then told us that we needed to stop at High Top truck stop for their pies. We took his advice, (who can pass up a great pie recommendation?) and I had a blackberry rhubarb pie which was really good. I love strawberry rhubarb but I think I have a new favorite!
The drive along the Dalton Highway was a beautiful mix of varying landscapes from sycamore spruce forest and open tundra. The drama unfolds as you drive north starting with sycamore spruce forests then the country opens up to expansive views of green tundra and hills. We stopped at an interesting outcropping of jagged rocks called tors jutting out of the tundra landscape. They’re created by the extreme freezing and thawing of the ground causing the rock to be thrust upward creating the outcropping. As we walked along the interpretative trail Darryl noticed a cloud formation that looked like a tornado off in the distance.
I read about how dangerous the Dalton Highway could be and that the truckers along this stretch of road were ruthless and tourists should get off the road as they barrel down the road spraying gravel and dust in their wake. Trucks have the right of way so you do have to move over but it isn’t always possible to actually get off the roadway. Perhaps my imagination is worse than reality but I thought they were courteous, slowing down when approaching and never pushing me off the road from behind.
We had a beautiful day driving north along the highway and I wanted to take advantage of the wonderful weather and stop to see the massive Yukon River. I thought we could enjoy a leisurely lunch sitting along the river and taking in the views. One step out of the truck into the mosquito clouds along the river changed that plan pretty quickly. I snapped a couple of photos with my iPhone and away we went again. Not the greatest photos but I wasn’t about to make a blood sacrifice for a better shot.
The Dalton Highway begins 84 miles north of Fairbanks and was originally built as a haul road for truckers to transporting supplies for the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline and to the oil field operations at Prudhoe Bay. We only made it as far as the Arctic Circle at mile 115 which is the northern-most point on our trip at N 66 33′, W 150 48.
From here we basically turn around and head south to Ushuaia, Argentina, a mere ~30,000 miles away depending on the number and extent of our side trips. Although it would have been cool to get to Prudhoe Bay, neither of us had a burning interest to see the oil fields which would have added an additional 600 miles (round trip) to our journey.
We stopped at the Hot Spot Cafe on the return trip to Fairbanks. They had the best food that we’ve had so far in Alaska! I was completely surprised that a little cafe in the middle of nowhere along the Dalton Highway would have such tasty food. While we waited for our food, the owner’s (Theresa Morin) mom shared stories with us about bears nosing around the place for food. Just a few days before a grizzly was walking around the building just under the window where she was working. She looked out to see who it was and saw the bear. They have a bell that she started ringing and Theresa came running out of the nearby house with her pink AR15 semi-automatic. After a few shots in the air the grizzly high tailed it to the wood frightened away by the racket these two women were making. She tells the story like it’s just another day at the Hot Spot Cafe. That’s Alaska!
It started to rain after leaving the Hot Spot Cafe and I learned just how treacherous the Dalton Highway can be. I’m sure it’s nothing like driving the road during winter icy conditions but in the rain the road turns into a slick sludge of dirt and calcium chloride (used to keep the dust down during the summer) which our tires glided over. In some sections it felt like I was driving on black ice or hydroplaning. Either way, it was a stressful drive back!
The truckers that make a living driving this haul road throughout the year have what is considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the road. I was lucky that most of my drive time was during perfect weather and limited traffic. Once we reached camp I was grateful that this section of road was behind us. Although our time on the Dalton Highway was packed with beautiful scenery and I’m left wondering if we didn’t leave some of the best scenery behind us since we didn’t get to the Brooks Range and other spectacular views further north. Perhaps for a future trip.
Back in Fairbanks we spent the next couple days at the fair. The first night we saw a really interesting band called Cello Fury. Darryl spotted the flyer for them at our campground at River Eagle RV. We took a cab to see the Pennsylvania based band. Their sound is a “fusion of progressive rock and classical music styles” (from Wikipedia). Most of the pieces were original compositions by them with a rock feel but they also played a couple pieces that highlighted their classical training. The place was packed and the audience loved their performance, I did too! Check out this YouTube video and you can listen to them play against a backdrop of video footage of their Alaska 2014 tour.
Under the category of “events we’ve never attended before this trip” was going to the Demolition Derby at the fair. I wasn’t interested in going but Darryl pointed out that we’d probably never see another one so why not now?! So we paid the cover fee and found a place in the bleachers to watch the action. We happened to be attending the grand finale event of the week with 7 trucks that were pretty beaten up but still operational (barely). These 7 finalists were competing for the championship. Each truck has a stick attached to the frame on the driver’s side which he’ll pull off when he “surrenders”. These guys ram into each other with the back of their vehicles hitting the front end of the other vehicles. They’ll gang up on one vehicle and take it out in a coordinated ramming and finally the last ones standing start after each other. It’s crazy! These guys hit each other so hard that they knock over the cement barriers and tires are jettisoned during collisions and clods of dirt are launched into the stands.
Our time in Fairbanks came to an end and now back to the road. Coming up is on of the other most scenic roads in Alaska, the Denali Highway and then Denali!! I can’t wait!!!
We had a beautiful drive through the Canadian Province of the Yukon Territory. If this is what is in store for us as we travel through Alaska then we’ll have some beautiful drives ahead of us! We stopped at Kluane Lake for lunch and took a few moments to capture the scenery around us. There were some boon docking options along the lake but we decided to drive on through to Tok, Alaska taking advantage of the long daylight hours.
Our first stop in Tok was at their visitor’s center where Darryl found a pamphlet advertising a local dog musher and a tour of his kennels. We called Hugh Neff, the 2012 Yukon Quest winner, to ask him if we could schedule a tour of his kennels. He invited us to his talk later that evening at a local hotel were we could meet one of his dogs and arrange a time for a tour the following morning. He also suggested that we drive out to Chicken, Alaska for the day. Chicken was on our pre-trip planning map and we were on the fence as to whether to drive out there or not. We just drove 400 miles the day before so we were a little road weary. At Hugh’s suggestion we decided that we should make the drive.
The woman at the Tok Visitor’s Center told us that there were now six full time residents in Chicken. After visiting Chicken, I honestly can’t tell you what they do all year round. During the summer the town probably doubles in size with a small transient population that spends their summer in Chicken working at the tourist shops. They live the rest of the year in Dawson City leaving the locals to stay through the harsh winter. The roads aren’t plowed so their only way to the nearest town is by snow machine.
We had a nice lunch at the Chicken Creek Cafe then spent some time walking around the town. The sights include a giant metal chicken at the top of a small hill along with a sign post showing the distances to cities with name associations to Chicken, a gold panning operation and a historic town. The day was cloudy and overcast which limited the typically incredible scenic views along the road to Chicken. It was still a nice day trip from Tok and worth the extra time in the driver’s seat.
Once back in Tok we went directly to Hugh’s talk where we learned about the Yukon Quest race which is arguably a tougher race than the famous Iditarod. Hugh explained that although they are both the same length, 1,000 miles, the terrain is more remote and more rugged. There are less than half the number of checkpoints in the Yukon Quest than during the Iditarod. Fewer checkpoints means that the Quest teams have to carry substantially more supplies (i.e. more weight) to support themselves between these resupply opportunities. All Quest teams have a mandatory 36 hour layover in Dawson City which is 12 hours longer than the mandatory 24 hour layover in the Iditarod at the checkpoint of the racer’s choosing.
Hugh’s passion for his dogs and mushing is evident from the first moment you meet him. He brought one of his dogs, Walter, to the talk. I was shocked at how small the dog was and doubly shocked to find out that he was part German Shorthair just like my Jhango. He certainly hid that side of his breeding since he looked more like a husky / german shepherd mix. Walter is one of Hugh’s lead dogs and has a charming personality. We got the chance to see Walter at work the next morning.
When we arrived at Hugh’s “Laughing Eyes Kennel” the following morning all we heard were dozens of dogs barking. Hugh was just finishing the morning feeding of fish gruel. He told us we could go play with the puppies while he finished feeding the dogs. They were soooo cute but I resisted going into their kennel to play with them because they were covered in fish gruel. I don’t mind getting a little dirty but we were both on our last pair of pants. Smelling like fish for the day didn’t sound so appealing.
As soon as Hugh started harnessing the dogs the barking hit a frenzied pitch as each dog tried to convince Hugh that the were the most eager to run this morning. And once they were in their harnesses the dogs lunged against the harnesses in a vain attempt to get the workout started. They did not want to wait around! I couldn’t believe how small these dogs were and they are all different breed mixes. They are lean and completely focused on their task. Walter was Mr. Social the night before at the talk but when I came over to greet him while he was standing at his lead position he wouldn’t move to look at me. He was all business standing there with his head down letting the team know that they can’t go until Hugh yells “hike’.
Their summer training means pulling a quad runner along the trails around Hugh’s property. They go out only three times a week for around 20 minutes to maintain their fitness. The real training doesn’t begin until late summer / early fall when Hugh takes them out for 70-100 miles runs. These dogs are incredible athletes and they love their job and they love Hugh. The interaction between Hugh and the dogs was inspiring. It’s rare to see somebody so in love with their work.
With the dogs all harnessed, they pulled the three of us on the quad runner for 20 minutes. Take a look at the video to see the speed of the dogs and you can hear their excitement. The clip is from the first few minutes of the run. They settled into a nice jog a little later but even then Hugh was braking at times to keep the dogs from running too hard. The temperature was in the low 60’s when we started which is really warm for the dogs. It didn’t dampen their enthusiasm though!
We really enjoyed our time with Hugh and his dogs. Hugh shared with us his story of growing up in Chicago and his dream as a kid of moving to Alaska to become a musher. What a great story and then he wins the 2012 Yukon Quest 12 years after his first 1,000 mile race. Hugh is an advocate for reading and spends much of his time speaking at Alaskan schools talking about the importance of reading and following your dreams. This will surely be one our our highlights during our Alaska portion of the trip.
Our ferry from Wrangell to Skagway departed at the insane time of 2:30 AM. These ferries depart and arrive at the craziest times staying only a few hours at most ports. Trying to schedule a trip through the Inside Passage can be difficult given the whacky schedule. We wanted to spend time in Gustavus visiting Glacier Bay National Park but it would have added almost an additional week to the time traveling through the Inside Passage. Since we’ll never be able to see everything on this trip much will be left for future travels; Glacier Bay National Park will be on that list.
During this section of the Inside Passage from Wrangell to Juneau then onto Skagway we saw many glaciers in the distance.
There was almost a three hour stop in Juneau so we decided to share a van ride into town with a few other couples. We had enough time to walk around the small downtown area which was jam packed with jewelry stores and fur stores. As we were walking through town we noticed that there were blue sheets of paper taped to the front windows of a few shops announcing that that they were Alaska owned shops. Our only guess was that many of the shops were owned by the cruise lines. Since I wasn’t in the market for jewelry or fur, I didn’t do much shopping! We did have lunch at one of the restaurants which was a welcome change to the ferry food service!
Back on the ferry we spent the rest of the evening enjoying the views and exchanging stories with our fellow passengers.
We arrived in Skagway at 4:40 AM. Did I tell you that these arrival times were crazy!? We feel so guilty driving our very loud diesel truck into RV campgrounds so early in the morning. We couldn’t find any open spots at the first RV campground where we had “reserved” a spot so we went to Pullen RV park right next to the marina and found an empty spot.
Before arriving in Skagway the plan was to stay 3-4 days but once we walked through town and realized it was very much a cruise ship port of call tourist town we decided that two days would be more than enough. The beautiful Dewey Lake Trailhead started just a few feet from the RV park entrance. This was a perfect place for a run! We certainly aren’t racking up the miles that we once ran but the terrain is much hillier and more technical than anything we ran in the Bay Area. We took a break during the run to watch some people jump 30 feet into the cold waters of Lower Dewey Lake.
We spent the following day on the White Pass & Yukon Route train tour. Our experience with tours is a bit spotty but we continue to go on those that we feel have the potential to expose us to something that we wouldn’t see otherwise. In this case, we heard that this narrow gauge train ride would take us through some of the most scenic areas of Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The scenery along the railway was breathtaking and considering the challenges of building this railway in 1898 makes it an engineering marvel. Riding the train hugging the mountain sides felt as if we were suspended in air. Looking out the window you could see that the width of the path for the train was only as wide as the train.
There were waterfalls and canyons, mountains and a river with class 7 rapids that have never been navigated. The route is an out and back which created a lot of discussion at the beginning of the trip with people strategizing as to which side to sit for the best views. People really never grow up! There was one man who shoved his way ahead of the crowds trying to get the best view. All of this was unnecessary since once we hit the end of the route the engineers move the engine from the front of the train and put it in the rear of the train making it the new front on the way down. All passengers switch sides and flip the back of the seats to the other side so we all face forward. If you followed all of the it means that if you were on the cliff side during the ride up the mountain then you have a canyon view on the way back down. No need to trample over your fellow passengers to get the best view!
The rail line was practically obsolete at the time of completion since it was completed during the waning years of the gold rush. Most prospectors couldn’t afford passage by rail anyway! They could barely meet the Canadian Border Patrol obligation that all prospectors have 2 tonnes of supplies with them before entering Canada thus ensuring that Canada would not become burdened with an onslaught of prospectors that couldn’t survive the trip to Dawson City, the gateway to gold country. I can’t imagine the force of will of these men and woman who pursued golden dreams of riches. This is rugged terrain and they were carrying their loads on foot, horseback and dogsled through all types of weather.
After the train ride we had a late lunch and then started our next leg of the journey to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Once we arrived at Whitehorse we spent some time trying to find a secluded spot to spend the night. We saw on the GPS that there was a promising looking road along the river so we tried to find somewhere inconspicuous to park. We found what seemed to be a promising area and when we rounded the bend we were shocked to see Looking4Adventure‘s rig! We were in the middle of nowhere and ran into the same couple that we met back in March in Death Valley! They were actually out for a walk so we didn’t get to say hello. We left them to their awesome spot, not wanting to ruin their privacy.
We gave up on finding anything special so went to the local RV park. I was a little surprised that there wasn’t anyone around to check us in but Darryl gently let me know that it wasn’t unreasonable for an RV office to be closed after 11 pm! With almost 20 hours of daylight my internal clock was completely off!
The next morning we went for a run at the place where we saw Looking4Adventure. Unfortunately they had already left but it was a beautiful run along the Yukon River.
Whitehorse is home to a few of the world’s biggest that we just had to see. First on the itinerary was the world’s longest wooden fish ladder. I’ve never seen a fish ladder and really couldn’t imagine what one looked like or even how a fish could “climb” one! They have a wonderful exhibit at their fish ladder and the volunteers are eager to answer any of your questions about the fish ladder. I naively thought that a fish ladder would enable most of the salmon to return to their spawning grounds. I was shocked to learn that only about 1,500 would make it up the ladder this year compared to the tens of thousands that left here for the sea just 3-5 years ago. “Of about 750 smolts that head out for the ocean, only about two to six adults are expected to return to their natal streams.”
The next world’s largest is this DC-3 weathervane. I just wanted to drive by it to see it but since we were there we decided to visit the Yukon Transportation Museum where it was located. I found it fascinating to see the evolution of transportation in the Yukon covering rail, dog sleds, vehicles and aviation.
We would continue our own little journey through the Yukon onto Tok, Alaska in our comfy XP Camper. Next post Tok and Chicken, Alaska!
The Washington Ferry from Port Townsend to Bellingham doesn’t actually drop you off in Bellingham. You arrive in a small port at Keystone on Whidbey Island. From there you drive across Whidbey Island then across the bridge to the mainland and north to Bellingham. It’s only an hour and half drive and the scenery along the island is beautiful.
Once in Bellingham we went to the ferry to get our tickets for the Alaska Marine Highway then walked into the small old town area and had lunch. We were told to be back to our vehicle by 3:30 so they could begin boarding. We arrived by 3:15 and waited, and waited, and waited for the boarding process to begin. We didn’t start boarding until 5:30! Once the boarding began it was a pretty quick process.
During our wait we spent the time talking with our fellow travelers. There was a bit of interest in the XP Camper and I gave out a few brochures that Marc provided to us. One of the men we met was from Cody, Wyoming. He had so many nice things to say about Cody that we added it to our travel itinerary during the Yellowstone to Colorado phase of the trip.
It was rainy and cold for the duration of our 44 hour ferry crossing from Bellingham to Wrangell 36 hours from Bellingham to Ketchikan then another 5 hours to Wrangell.
Our stop in Ketchikan was around 7 in the morning for a little over an hour. We got up to see the town which was a 10 minute cab ride away. We opted to have breakfast across from the ferry terminal instead. I was less than impressed with the food options available on the ferry which reminded me of the institutional meals from my school lunch program years and years ago.
Back on the ferry I settled in for another wet day. I had envisioned seeing snow capped mountains and glaciers throughout the Inside Passage. We saw a few mountains with snow still on their peaks but no glaciers so far. The waters were a steely grey and there were fog banks obscuring parts of the islands. The islands were dressed in forest green covered in a fine grey gauze. The skies were varying shades of grey making the scenery a two-toned world of greens and grey.
Finally we arrived at Wrangell, Alaska, the third oldest community along the Alaskan Inside Passage with a population of 2,300 (2013) and where we would spend the next couple of days. It was a Sunday so most of the stores were closed. At first glance, the town did not seem to have any amenities for tourists. We went down the main street and found the Wrangell Convention and Visitor Center which looked closed. There was a woman in the office but closing it up. She informed us that they are typically closed on Sundays but with the Bearfest Marathon just finishing as she pointed out the last competitor walking under the balloon arch finish line. She spent a few minutes sharing with us what we should do during our couple of days in Wrangell and said we absolutely need to go to Anan. Her husband is a tour guide at Anan and said that the viewing has been great this year! She sent us back into town to where all of the tour operators are located near the small marina.
Armed with a small library of brochures about Wrangell activities we drove the main street back through the small town past two grocery stores, a handful of hardware and general merchandise stores, one clothing store, VFW hall and couple very tiny restaurants. Wrangell has the feel of a small town that has no clue that one of its primary economic resources is tourism. We liked the feeling that we were in a real Alaskan town. There was only one tour operator that was open and we inquired about getting on the Anan Bears and Wildlife Observatory tour. This tour was why we chose Wrangell as a stopover along the Inside Passage. At Anan there are viewing platforms overlooking a river where salmon spawn and grizzlies feast. This was going to be one of the highlights of our Alaska trip. Unfortunately, they were completely booked for the following day due to a cruise ship coming to port. They provided us with a couple of other smaller tour operators to call but nobody else was open.
The funny thing about talking to small tour operators is that when you call them you’re likely calling their home. I called two of them and definitely felt that I was interrupting their Sunday evening. We decided to wait until their offices were open the next day to call any others. So far, everyone was booked…months in advance! Now time to explore Wrangell!
Although it was drizzling all day, people were out biking, running and doing yard work as if it were a dry sunny day. I guess a drizzly day is as good as a dry one when you live in a temperate rainforest where it gets almost 80 inches of rainfall a year! Coming from California, Darryl and I weren’t accustomed to all of this rain. Ever since arriving in Washington State there has been some level of precipitation every day. Up until then our trip was five straight months of sunny weather with maybe two or three days with a smattering of rain.
After driving through the small town (which took about five minutes) we drove about an hour out of town to the Nemo Campsites in the mountains. The sites were gorgeous and we were tempted to stay out there but we still needed to get our Anan tour tickets first thing in the morning. We opted to stay at campsites along Spur Road which is just 10 minutes from the tour operators.
View from the Nemo campsites.
The next morning we learned a hard lesson about the impact of cruise ship tourism on these small Alaskan towns. Basically, the cruise ships booked every single one of the tour companies months in advance for 100% of their spots. So we weren’t going to Anan. Although bummed with the current situation due to our lack of planning I doubt that it will make us be better planners. We love living in the moment and staying someplace longer if it suits us and moving on if it doesn’t. We’ll just have to deal with the consequences.
There were three tours that all of the companies offered; Anan, the LeConte Glacier and the Stikine River Tour. They are listed in this order on all the signage and brochures and the prices are reflected high to low in this order. Both Anan and Leconte Glacier were fully booked leaving only the third tour as an option for the next day. We were hesitant to spend the $175 each for the third ranked tour but hey, we would be able to see Shakes Glacier and there was a chance we would see some wildlife. If John Muir called the Stikine River Valley as a “Yosemite 100 miles long” then it must be pretty spectacular. We purchased the tickets for the following day and spent the rest of the day visiting the museum and then off to the restored Chief Shakes Tribal House, I picked up a few produce items at the tiny natural foods market and then off to explore the backroads in the Tongass National Forest.
Our Stikine River Tour started at 9 am with Alaska Waters Wilderness Adventure Tours. Captain James and First Mate Scott would be our tour guides for the day. When we booked the tour we asked about what we would see and were told that we would see Shakes Glacier. No bears but a glacier! I was pretty excited to see my first glacier! Scott and James had plenty of stories to share with us about the area and its history. The tour along the river was beautiful but doesn’t vary a lot until we arrived at the icebergs that split from Shakes Glacier after calving events earlier in the spring. They blocked access to the glacier so we weren’t going to see the actual glacier. I should have been more specific in my questions about the tour. “Will we see the whole glacier or just the bits and pieces that have broken off?” I must admit that I was thought touching the icebergs was pretty awesome; maybe not $175 / ticket awesome. I couldn’t believe the size of them which were like small islands floating in the river.
We saw a few float houses on the river. First Mate Scott told us the backstory about these float houses. When the Federal Government created the national forests, parks, wildernesses and preserves throughout Alaska it agreed to leave the rivers as state territory. Private property within the federally managed areas is not allowed however, the private property of long time residents was grandfathered in to be retained by the family. Because the rivers are state owned many Alaska residents own float houses.
We weren’t lucky enough to see any wildlife during our tour. Although the scenery was beautiful, I don’t think that the tour was worth the cost and I wouldn’t recommend going on this particular tour. Try to get out to the LeConte Glacier if you can’t get to the #1 tour at the AnAn Bear Observatory. Our tour company was excellent and all of the tour companies bill the Stikine River tour as “seeing the Shakes Glacier”. We were so pleased with Alaska Waters that we booked a future visit to Anan on our return the the Inside Passage in a few weeks. They’ll pick us up from the Banana Point pick-up on Petersburg island.
Darryl and I spent our last hours in Wrangell exploring the coast. Our ferry would arrive at 2:30 am to take us to Skagway. Our time in Wrangell was short and extremely wet. We were seriously considering going to Alaska with the FJ and roof top tent. I think we would have been miserable trying to camp in the rain with that set-up. We were so happy to have our XP Camper at this point!
Our time on the inside passage would be drawing to a close soon. Next stop would be Juneau for just a few hours and then onto Skagway on the mainland….next post.