Our Denali Experience

August 9 – 14, 2014

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!DSC05024

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.

We took a walk across the road from the campgrounds to take in the views.
We took a walk across the road from the campgrounds to take in the views.

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. DSC05037

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.DSC05047

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This is the sunset I watched while preparing dinner. Pretty awesome!

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.

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Here the grizzly is making his way toward the trail up to the parking lot.
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He was only about 25 yards from our bus!

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!DSC05117

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!!

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Our first view of Denali!

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!

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Polychrome pass in Denali National Park
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Taken at Eielson Visitor Center
One of dozens of caribou seen along the road.
One of dozens of caribou seen along the road.
Denali with caribou along the road.
Denali with caribou along the road.

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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.

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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! DSC05252

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To the Arctic Circle

August 5 – 8, 2014

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 wheIMG_1707re 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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I refused to get out of the truck because of the mosquitos. The cloud of mosquitos around Darryl’s head while he took the photo was so thick that I could see it from a distance.

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!DSC05015

Bumperstickers covering one of the doors at the Hot Spot Cafe. Reading these provides a glimpse into the Alaskan psyche! :-)
Bumperstickers covering one of the doors at the Hot Spot Cafe. Reading these provides a glimpse into the Alaskan psyche! 🙂

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.

Our XP looked like an Oreo cookie when we returned!
Our XP looked like an Oreo cookie when we returned!

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.

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Check out the green truck. He has no rear tires but was still in the mix!

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!!!

 

Dogs & Chickens

August 2 – 4, 2014

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.

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These ducks looked so cozy watching me photograph them from just a couple feet away.
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The lakes and ponds were like mirrors.
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Our little lunch spot along Kluane Lake.

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.

IMG_1702The 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.

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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.

Walter is the lead dog with his head down. As all of the other dogs are lunging against their leads, Hugh is standing his ground to keep the team from taking off while Hugh harnesses the rest of the team.
Walter is the lead dog on the right with his head down. As all of the other dogs are lunging against their leads, Hugh is standing his ground to keep the team from taking off while Hugh harnesses the rest of the team.

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’.

You can see the dogs straining against their harnesses ready to hit the trail.
You can see the dogs straining against their harnesses ready to hit the trail.

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.

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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.

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We turned the dogs break into a photo opp.
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Panting away they are still eager to get going again.
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After the run Darryl and I get one last photo with some of the team.

The most scenic railroad, the longest fish ladder and the largest weathervane

July 30 – August 1, 2014

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.

Icebergs from the glacier in the distance. This glacier has retreated 30 miles over the past decade.
Icebergs from the glacier seen in the distance. The ferry slowed to a crawl as it passed through this section.

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!

How many jewelry and fur shops does a place need? These were cruise ship shops for their tourists.
How many jewelry and fur shops does a place need? These were cruise ship shops for their tourists.

Back on the ferry we spent the rest of the evening enjoying the views and exchanging stories with our fellow passengers.

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One of the many glaciers that we saw on in the Inside Passage between Juneau and Skagway.
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Just another stunning sunset on the Inside Passage!
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We spent our days in awe watching the changing landscape on the ferry through the Inside Passage.

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The mountains looked like ice cream sundaes with cherry clouds set aglow by the sunset.

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!

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We did the White Pass Summit Excursion on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. The views were spectacular along the tour.

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Tourists hanging out on the platforms between the rail cars on the train ahead of us.
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These guys did a happy dance for the tourists as we passed by. The earlier trains would drop people off who wanted to hike for the day. The last train would pick them up to return to Skagway.

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!

Yukon River Trail in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
Yukon River Trail in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

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.”

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“One fish, two fish” art exhibit coordinated in 1999 by local artist Donald Watt to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fish ladder.
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World’s longest wooden fish ladder in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. Only 1,597 salmon passed through it this year of which 372 were wild salmon. The remainder were fish hatchery salmon.

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.

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Possibly the world’s largest weathervane is this DC-3 which is mounted to point into the wind. It’s installed at the Yukon Transportation Museum in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.

We would continue our own little journey through the Yukon onto Tok, Alaska in our comfy XP Camper. Next post Tok and Chicken, Alaska!

Glaciers & temperate rain forests…Alaska, here we come!

July 26-29, 2014

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.

The solar deck was packed with campers.
Both the front deck and solar deck were packed with campers.
A view of the observation area overlooking the front deck.
A view of the observation area overlooking the front deck.

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.

It was soothing to sit in the observation lounge and take in the landscape.
The somber tones made me feel calm and reflective.

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.

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Ferry tracks
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At the tip of Campbell Island is the Dryad Point Lighthouse in Bella Bella, British Columbia.

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.

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.

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The tribal home is made of beautifully hand carved red cedar.
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One of Chief Shakes totem poles. Historically totem poles were left to decay in the elements. Due to discouragement by missionaries and the US government’s, new totems were on the decline. Preservation of restoration of existing totems began in the 1930’s to preserve this cultural heritage.
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View of Wrangell from Chief Shakes Island.

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.

The color of these ice bergs was amazing!
The color of these ice bergs was amazing!
Ice bergs come in all shapes and colors.
Ice bergs come in all shapes and colors.

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.

Float house on Stikine River.
I would love to spend a week in this float house!

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.

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Lichen covered Sitka Spruce
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I think everyone in Alaska has a boat and a car to get around.
Commercial fishing boat
Commercial fishing boat

Last Days in the Lower 48

July 20 – 25, 2014

Our time in the lower 48 states was quickly drawing to an end and we were really excited to get on the ferry and see Alaska. It has been on our bucket list for many years but we never really knew how we wanted to explore it. Neither of us are cruise ship travelers and we didn’t think that driving our Subaru to Alaska and camping in tents was the ideal vacation. But we had a lot of driving to do before catching our ferry from Bellingham, WA to Wrangell, AK.

Our first stop was at a Ford dealer in Sacramento, CA to check on a brake issue that cropped up as soon as we left Grass Valley. It seems like there is always something going on with the vehicles that we own!

Once the brakes were fixed we drove to Ashland, Oregon. Overall, this wasn’t the most exciting week for us on the trip since most of the time was spent retracing our route back through Oregon then onto Washington, cooking, eating, running and sleeping.

The runs were our highlight during this week. We enjoy getting out for a run as often as possible wherever we stay. It’s a great way to see a neighborhood and enjoy the outdoors. We made running a priority this week since we would be spending so much time driving and it would be the only exercise that we would get. Working out with regularity is one thing I miss on this trip. It’s been tough getting into a regular workout schedule but we can at least manage a weekly run.

Our second day was a relatively short drive to Portland so I could stop by Powell’s Books the next day to pick up the missing CD from the audio book “1,000 Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini which I purchased during our earlier visit. (As an aside, I loved the book and the characters Khaled created. I often think back on the lives of Laila and Mariam, the two protagonists of the story, and wish I could have a little more time with them.) We were living in the FJ when we visited Portland earlier in the trip. Compared to the XP Camper, our FJ was a dream to drive around the city. With the XP, parking is difficult because many lots have height restrictions that our XP exceeds and trying to parallel park this beast is almost as difficult as finding a spot long enough to fit into (we’re about 21 feet long)! So instead of parking, Darryl drove around the block, and around the block, and around the block…while I ran inside to make the exchange.

It was a pretty easy decision to get back to the highway rather than dealing with the Portland traffic so we decided to continue up the coast of Washington to the Screamin Eagle Campgrounds just outside of Ocean City, Washington. The cool thing about this campground is that it accommodates horses so I spent the following morning chatting with a couple about their Standardbreds. If you have ever watched harness racing this is likely the breed that was racing. They are the fastest trotters in the world and many of them have a unique natural gait called the pace, a two-beat lateral gait where the front and hind leg of one side move in unison. After our conversation I decided that I’m not quite ready to ride a breed that can pace a mile in under 2.5 minutes!

This was our running route on Washington Beach just behind our campsite.
This was our running route on Washington Beach just behind our campsite.

We made it to Port Townsend, Washington near the end of the next day. We were hoping that we arrived early enough to get an RV spot in the cute historic downtown area which also has a killer view on the water. It’s a popular spot but with very few spaces available so we weren’t surprised to see that it was completely full by the time we rolled in. Our only other option were the fairgrounds so off to the less scenic but spacious fairgrounds for our evening in Port Townsend. There were plenty of spaces available with clean bathrooms but without the gorgeous views and easy access to the downtown. The “early bird catches the worm” but Darryl and I are rarely early birds. Maybe this will change somewhere along the trip…but I highly doubt it! We did have to set our alarms for our early morning ferry departure to Bellingham, WA.

After packing up the XP the following morning we went into town to find a hot breakfast before boarding the ferry. It seemed that we were up far too early for most of the cafes as we walked by closed sign after closed sign. Darryl asked a couple that was walking along the street if they knew of a good breakfast place. They were on their way to their favorite spot, Sweet Laurette Cafe & Bistroand invited us to come along with them. We ended up having a wonderful breakfast with them! As chance would have it, he was born and raised in Alaska and had stories to share with us of his life in Alaska. He is also an avid cyclist who takes cycling vacations throughout the country while his wife drives a support vehicle for many of these journeys. We were so caught up in their stories that we almost missed our ferry! The check hadn’t arrived yet and we had to boogie!! They were so kind to treat us to our breakfast as payment for the many meals that they received on their journeys. Their only request was that we pay it forward to somebody else that we meet in the future. I completely forgot their names but I’ll just refer to them as our “Road Angels”.

We made it to the ferry with plenty of time to spare. We didn’t realize that there was so much time spent waiting to load when taking a ferry! This first ferry to Bellingham took only 30 minutes. Then once in Bellingham we had time for a quick lunch and then off to the Alaska Marine Highway ferry loading docks to wait for loading. During the long wait we had lots of time to check out the other vehicles making the trip to Alaska. Our XP caught the eye of a few admirers and we passed the time exchanging stories with our fellow travelers about our journey and they shared with us their adventures. I was surprised to meet so many people that travel to Alaska year after year for weeks at a time. And here I thought that our allotted six weeks in Alaska would be plenty of time to see the state. Now I’m having my doubts considering the extensive amount of time people spend in Alaska and yet they feel that there is so much more to see. We’ll soon find out if we budgeted enough time! If not, we can always make it back another day.

This week went by so quickly with much of the daylight hours spent driving that I didn’t take out my camera much. The photos below are the best that I can find in a very limited supply! I’m sure that once we make it to Alaska I’ll have more impressive photos to share. In the meantime stay tuned for our next update as we arrive in Alaska!

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All ready to board the Washington Ferry from Port Townsend to Bellingham!
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They really cram us in!
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A last look at Port Townsend, WA.
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All aboard the Alaska Marine Highway!! These ferries are huge!

FJ wrap-up…XP new beginnings

July 10 – 21, 2014

We finally get our XP and we wouldn’t even get to spend the first night in it!

Our original plan was to have the XP for a few weeks to get comfortable with the rig and flush out any issues with either the truck or the camper before going to Alaska. Because of some of the delays we would have just two weeks to get to our ferry in Washington. We still had a lot to do in this short window giving us very little time to get to know our new home. After Marc handed us the keys we went to dinner in Nevada City and took inventory of what needed to be done before boarding the ferry. Our first order of business was to get the F350’s 100k mile service completed ASAP. In our experience it’s never just taking a vehicle in for service since they always find something else to fix. We didn’t have time to waste so we decided to find a Ford service department who could begin work the next day. The Ford Store in Gilroy had a 7 am appointment available the next morning. This meant driving our FJ and XP the three hours to the Bay Area once we finished dinner. We stayed in a hotel just minutes away from the dealer. Our first night in the XP would have to wait.

We dropped off the vehicle and were told that it would take a couple of days to do the service and finish work on the additional items that we knew about it. Later that day we heard from the service department. They suggested that we take care of a few more issues which added another day. We spent these days visiting friends and buying some gear for the trip that we couldn’t fit into the FJ. There was even some time for my favorite run in the Bay Area at Wilder Ranch in Santa Cruz.

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Perfect day for a run in Santa Cruz.
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This is my favorite part of this trail as we run along the cliffs overlooking Monterrey Bay.
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Darryl and I end every trip to Santa Cruz with a visit to Natural Bridges.

Now with our XP ready for the trip we were ready to move into our new home. After living in the FJ for four months, the XP feels like a palace! We now have a small kitchen with plenty of counter space to prepare meals. Everything runs on diesel so no more searches for propane canisters for the Coleman stove.

Our first guests were Cesar and his wife Brenda, longtime friends of Darryl’s. We gave them the ten cent tour of our XP which took just a few minutes. A quick spin around while standing in place is about all it takes to see everything! 🙂 There’s not enough room in the XP for a dinner party so we headed across the parking lot for dinner. Over dinner caught each other up the happenings in our lives. There was also plenty of talk about where to cross into Mexico and safe places to stay as well as places to avoid. As Mexican natives, Cesar and Brenda have been a wonderful source for us as we plan our trip into Mexico. We don’t expect to cross the border into Mexico until October but it’s never to early to start planning parts of the route!

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As soon as we picked up our truck from Ford we went over to our storage locker to transfer everything from our FJ into the XP and to pick up our cold weather clothes which we’ll need at some point in the upcoming months. Our next stop is to say good-bye to the FJ and leave it in storage until after the trip. The FJ was an awesome vehicle for us during the last four months. We had absolutely no mechanical issues with it and it handled all of our off-road adventures with ease. Although our XP will beat the FJ + roof top tent in the comfort category it won’t hold a candle to the FJ in the off-road capability category.

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Now with our FJ tucked away in storage and us settled into our new home we had one last stop to make before saying good-bye to California. Back in June I met Gypsy Vanner breeder Lynn Strauss of the Gypsy Rose Ranch at the Western States Horse Expo. After talking with her about the breed I asked if we could stop by her ranch in Lodi, CA to spend a little more time with her horses and take a riding lesson with her on a Gypsy Vanner. We would be driving by Lodi so I called her up and scheduled a time to meet the next day. We spent most of the following day at the ranch learning about the operations and meeting the horse. I fell in love with all of them!

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These horses were so friendly! As soon as we walked into their paddocks they all crowded around us to say hello.
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This little colt was a doll! If only I had a home for him I would take him now.
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I really love the look and disposition of the Gypsy Vanner.

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We had to make one more stop at XP in Grass Valley to have our rear window replaced and then we’re off to catch our ferry in a week out of Bellingham. We spent the night in the Tahoe National Forest after fixing the window. I really felt the elevation during our morning run the following day!

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At White Cloud Campground in the Tahoe National Forest.

We’re super excited about starting our adventure in Alaska. Just one more week in the lower 48 and we’ll be catching our ferry!

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