Alaska Part 2
Our last installment was written back in June while on the ferry from Juneau to Haines. Since then a lot has happened and we are still alive to talk about it. We really enjoyed our stay in Alaska and the return through Canada. Hopefully our experiences will be interesting and informative. If anyone has any questions, drop us a line.
We have been visiting family and friends for the last couple of months and are getting ready to head off for Part 3 of our adventure – MEXICO!! But that is another story.
We got off the ferry in Haines and had to make it to Juneau in 2 days to pick up the first of our visitors. On the ride over the passes from Haines we saw the first of Alaska’s stupid humans. We drove by and watched a Darwin Award candidate on the side of the road within about 30 ft of a full sized grizzly bear trying to get a photo (with a telephoto lens no less). He was closer to the bear than his car. We just kept going.
Haines is a great place to see bald eagles. In the late fall they arrive by the thousands. There were a few around in June, but no more than we had seen elsewhere. The ride over the passes was spectacular and looked worthy of some serious hiking. Lots of low tundra and mountains as far as you could see. We only had time to look.
After 2 days we had made it to Anchorage and picked up our friend Jay. We decided to make a beeline to Denali to see the sights there. This was the first of 3 trips to Denali for us and each one was magnificent in its own right. We went in June, July, and August. It was like spring summer and fall in three months.
The park itself is in a range of mountains in the middle of the State. A day’s drive from either Anchorage or Fairbanks. Trains make the journey too. The park is heavily visited and tightly controlled. There are a limited number of camping sites in the park and only two of them are accessible by vehicle. Otherwise you have to camp.
Getting around in the park is on foot, bike, your drive in, or the main transport – the bus. If you stay at the Teklanika campground you can drive in and out one time. We took our time going both ways and had our own little tour. If you want to drive in, you had better make reservations before you go. They have an 800 number and a web site to take reservations up to 1 year in advance. It is pretty easy to get non-driving camping sites though.
In addition to setting up your campsite, you also have to make reservations on the bus. Early busses fill up and a reservation will guarantee you a spot. Generally what you do all day is ride in on the bus and look for wildlife. If anyone sees something the driver stops and lets everyone have a look. Needless to say, it takes most of the day to drive in and out. As the bus drives along, you are welcome to get out and hike anywhere you like. When you want to get back on a bus, just flag the next one down. When one with an empty seat comes along you get on. There are plenty of busses, so you will see one at least every 30 minutes. Of course you don’t have to worry about getting left out there, they are careful to count all the riders at the end of the day.
Backcountry camping is definitely the best way to see the park. The problem is that there are a limited number of campers allowed in each of the many areas in the park for a given night. You can make reservations for backcountry camping in advance to assure you get a good area to hike. Many of the prime locations are hard to come by (such as around the Eielson Visitors Center). You can make reservations over the phone well in advance, but if you are at the Park, you can only reserve 3 days in advance. If your areas are not available over the following 3 days you are out of luck unless… You are reading this.
To get reservations greater than 3 days out, make a reservation to camp in the park for a couple of days. If you are registered as camping, you can get backcountry passes starting the day after you are done at your campsite. This way, you can camp 4 days (or more) and reserve 5 days in advance. We found this to be an easy way to get the better areas, plus you could spend a couple of days riding the bus and doing Discovery Hikes with the Rangers to get your bearings.
The park organizes Disco (Discovery) Hikes led by Interpretive Rangers. These are an excellent way to get into the backcountry on a guided hike. We did 3 of these while we were up there and got to meet some of the Rangers (Yo Brett!!) and get a better understanding of the Park, and what it take to live in the area. On our hikes we saw moose and caribou, and loads of wolf scat (though no wolves). If you want to hike on your own, just start walking out of your camping area or if you are on the bus, tell the driver to stop when you see a place you like.
If you ride the bus, you are guaranteed to see spectacular scenery, but not necessarily wildlife. If you ride all the way out to Wonder Lake (do this at least 1 time), you are sure to see at least some beavers. It is a pretty sure thing you will see some caribou, and Dall sheep. Bears are fairly common and you should see at least one if you ride 3 days. Of course sometimes you see five in a day. It just depends on how good you can spot them and if they happen to be in sight of the road.
Moose are pretty common too. If you are lucky, you will see Denali. The highest mountain in North America at over 20,000 ft. It towers over the other mountains in the area that are about 10,000 ft. You can see it at many places in the park and on the ride up, but the best view is at the Eielson Visitors Center, and Wonder Lake. If you see a picture of the mountain with a lake in the foreground it is Wonder Lake. You can camp there if you like, but go early or late in the season as the mosquitoes are vicious. If you are REALLY lucky you will see some wolves. While we were there on a later trip we just missed wolves downing a moose in sight of a busload of tourists!!
Our first trip was arranged months in advance and we got our campsite at Teklanika and bus tickets for three days. The weather was excellent and there was still a lot of snow on the ground. The animals were out and about (oot and aboot for you Canuks) and mid June was a good time for viewing them. Rob was sick for 1 day and Mel and our friend Jay rode the busses and saw bears with cubs, moose, and lots of caribou. We did our first disco hike, and boy was it a hike.
The hike looked easy from the road. Low scrub out to some nearby ridges. We would walk the ridges and see what we will. Of course once we got into the scrub, we found that it was waist to chest high! It was quite a scramble, but once we made the ridge the walking was easy. This was our intro to hiking in Denali and the advice I would give is to find a place to hike where you are above the denser scrub in elevation. Anywhere past Polychrome Pass, or a place where the road comes close to a ridge makes for easier hiking.
On the drive out of the park we came across a fox that ran right by us (within 5 ft) with a rabbit in its mouth. Pictures of the fox are on the Photo section of the web site. After leaving the Park we headed back towards the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage and made our first visit to Portage Glacier.
The first stop in the Kenai is at Portage Glacier. We took everyone who came to visit and all loved it. The drive out to there is spectacular and the Glacier and visitors center doesn’t disappoint. The Kenai is one of the most accessible areas in Alaska. There are plenty of roads as Alaska goes, and even more to do. Within easy reach of Anchorage, you would do well to come here and stay. If you like hiking, fishing, hunting, clamming, ice climbing, Glacier tours, mountaineering, camping, canoeing, kayaking, flight seeing, or just hanging out, you can do it here.
We spent most of our time in the Kenai and barely scratched the surface. Many people think it is overrun with tourists, but if you walk off the road you will be alone in no time. We used our first trip to get a lay of the land and visited Seward and Homer. In Seward we did the first of many Glacier Cruises (one of our favorites). We climbed up to the Harding Ice Field though plenty of snow, and had a great camping trip (and breakfast of Dolly Varden) at Ptarmigan lake. We hung out in Homer for a couple of days and Rob caught his King Salmon in the “fishin’ hole” (Picture on the web site). So far there were no serious bear encounters.
Jenny arrived in early July and we made a run up to Denali. On the way we stopped to visit our new friend Nancy, and the town of Talkeetna for the “Moose Dropping” Festival. We had met Nancy on the way back from Denali the first time and decided to drop by her place for a visit. Driving down the highway, there she was!! Of course when there is only 1 road it is easy to spot people (and the Mystery Machine is hard to miss). We made it to Nancy’s cabin where we were introduced to living in Alaska.
Nancy had moved here to experience the outdoors. This was certainly the place to do it. Her cabin was typical of those in Alaska. No electricity, no running water, and a wood stove for heat. At least she had a road to her cabin. We settled in for the evening and I decided to go to the river (Susitna R.) for some water. As I filled the bucket and turned around, there he was… A BIG GRIZZLY BEAR. At first I only heard this rumbling sound as he was running away from me. When our paths crossed we were about 20 ft apart. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring the shotgun we had carried for such occasions. As he was running I thought, “what is a big sheep doing here”. He ran about 40 feet and turned to look at me. That is when I noticed is was not a big sheep, it was a big bear!!
When you come in contact with a bear you are supposed to do the following:
I did all of these and it seemed to work since I am writing this today. He just looked at me and I slowly went about my way. The important thing is to let them know you are there, you are not a threat, and you are not to be trifled with. Generally bears do not eat people, so they do not see you as food. If they see you as a threat, they may attack. This is why you are doing 2 and 3 above. The object is to never surprise a bear. I broke this rule.
This is all well and good, but what do you do if a bear attacks? If you have a gun, you may be tempted to use it. Consider this however. Nearly all charges by bears are a bluff. They will almost always turn away at the last minute. If you shoot, they will not turn away. In addition, bears are HUGE. Easily over 500 lbs and some over 1000 lbs. You had better be a very good shot. Anything other than a headshot will not do it.
Our personal policy was to not shoot unless a bear had actually touched one of us. All the people I had met who had ever shot a bear said when the gun went off, the game was over and it was life or death. Until you shoot, you might be able to avoid contact. If you are going to shoot, you better have a good weapon. Handguns generally don’t cut it unless you are an expert (and it is a BIG GUN). For all us non-professionals, the advice is to carry a high-powered rifle or a 12 gauge with rifled slugs. The ammo should be designed to penetrate bone as the skull is very thick and the bear’s fat layer tends to flatten a bullet. In the end, we rarely carried the shotgun and, fortunately, never had to fire it.
When I got back to the cabin, of course everyone wanted to go see the bear. We went back (because I couldn’t stop them) and this time, I brought the shotgun. He was still there sniffing around and doing what bears do. We got to watch him for about 20 minutes before we left.
Nancy worked at some of the nearby lodges and ran dogs during the winter. She is from Florida of all places and says she never wants to leave Alaska. We have some pictures of Nancy’s’ dogs on our web site. In the winter she has to run her dogs out to the main road to get to her car. The cabin is heated by a wood burning stove and stays relatively warm. She was introduced to dogsledding by some of the locals, who are always interested in getting new converts to the sport. We spent the night and were off to Talkeetna the next day.
The town is billed as the gateway to Denali. If you want to take a tour up to base camp, this is the place all the tours originate from. Regular charters are run daily shuttling climbers up and down from one of the glaciers used as base camp. The town also has an excellent museum and a mountaineering school where you can take 2-week courses to learn aspects of mountaineering. It seems like almost everyone in town is a climber or a pilot. Teams from all over the world hang out in the local cafes.
We were here for the famous Moose Dropping Festival and the Mountain Mothers contest. The festival was started to commemorate the accidental dropping of a moose by a helicopter during a transport (The moose lived BTW). Each town seems to have its own festival, and Talkeetna is no exception (there is a blue- (and other) grass festival too). We camped at the end of town and no one seemed to mind. The town is small enough that you can walk everywhere. We spent the first night partying at the Pioneer Inn and checking out the locals. We made it outside at midnight and the sun had just set.
The festival was good and the parade good for a laugh or two. We were ready for the Mountain Mother contest. The contestants have to be mothers. Each one had a doll strapped to her back and had to carry bags of groceries over log (if you drop them or slip off you start over). Then she has to split 3 blocks of wood, shoot balloons with a bow and arrow (time shaved off for hits), cast a fishing rod, changes the dolls diaper, and makes a pie. Once done she rang a dinner bell to mark the time. The contest was great and a new champion was crowned. The kids in town devoured all the pies.
Our second trip to Denali was fabulous. We arrived in the park in the afternoon and arranged a campsite at Teklanika with the help of some friends in Reservations…. We drove into the park in the early evening and made our way as slowly as possible out to the campground. On the way we came across a huge bull moose. We stopped the car and watched him walk up to the road and took lots of video. He came up about 30 yards from us and walked down the road a while. We got back in the van with Jenny and Mel on the roof and followed him down the road. He ended up walking about 10 yards from the front of the van! WOW!!
We rode the bus and saw plenty of wildlife and did another discovery hike. Photos from this hike are on the web site, including a panoramic shot. The scenery is just incredible.
Another friend, Lisa joined Jenny and us for another trip to the Kenai. After our stop at the Portage Glacier we headed off to Seward. We got there and checked out the town and did a little fishing. We put the boat in the water and headed out along the coast where Rob caught his Chum (Dog) Salmon. We did our second Glacier Cruise and stopped off at “Le Barn-a-Petit” for some good chow.
Le Barn-a-Petit is a small B&B/Hotel run by a Belgian/American family. The best thing is the food. The chef takes his cooking seriously. You get an all you can eat dinner of whatever he feels like making for about $7. We had meat loaf, mashed potatoes, veggies, and smoked halibut. Yum yum. Before heading off we went to the nearby Exit Glacier for the obligatory stand by a glacier photos. Some of these are on the web site.
From Seward we were off to our other favorite place, Clam Gulch. There is a State park where you can dig razor clams and have some good chowder. We drove around the Kenai some more before heading back to Anchorage and sending Jenny and Lisa on their way. We spent July 4th in Anchorage and checked out the parade and the fireworks (while the sun was still up).
Our final guests were Rob’s Mother and Uncle. After picking them up in Anchorage we were off again for the Kenai. We made the usual stop at the Portage Glacier, but this time we were ready. While staying at the Air Force Lodge, we found out about the Toursaver coupons.
The Toursaver is one of those coupon books that you can buy in most cities as fundraisers. These were printed as a fundraiser for the Special Olympics in 2001 and sold at Safeway and Carr’s grocery stores. If you pay $80, you get $1000’s in savings. Fortunately for us, we were just the sorts of people who would get their monies worth. The coupons in this book gave essentially free stuff away! Not buy one get one free, just free! We had coupons for the Portage Glacier cruise, Cruises from Seward, Flight-seeing, Ice Climbing, Denali train rides, tours in the Southeast, even in Dawson City in the Yukon, you name it. We each bought one and the savings began. We easily saved $1500. They are still available, so check it out in the grocery.
Our first night in the Kenai with Mom and Uncle Bob was at the town of Hope. The town is an old gold mining settlement. It has a café, a couple of shops and a good museum. The river that runs through town has a pretty good Pink Salmon run and is known as a family spot. The town runs a campground at the mouth of the river. Pictures of the scenery around Hope are on the web site.
Unfortunately for us, the weather wasn’t at it’s best while Rob’s Mom and Uncle were there, but we had a big tent and lots of tarps so at least we were comfortable. We did yet another glacier cruise out of Seward and checked out the Aquarium (excellent). Made the obligatory stop at the Exit Glacier before heading off to the Russian River for some combat fishing.
The Russian River is “World” Famous for its salmon run. When we got there it was a spectacle. We started out in the Russian River campground and noted the lack of fish in the stream. Asking around we found out that the problem was the fisherman were standing shoulder to shoulder across the mouth of the river. We drove around to investigate and were amazed to see people lining the bank of the Kenai River for about a mile and the entire mouth of the Russian River blocked by fisherman. As each caught a fish, someone would take up his or her spot. Wow. We spent the night on the Kenai River and fished the opposite bank catching a few Reds (Sockeyes) and grilling them over an open fire.
We sent Mom and Uncle Bob on their way and hung out at the Air Force Base for a little R&R and Maintenance on the Van. Since Rob is in the Navy Reserve, we are entitled to stay if space is available, on the base. The rooms are nice and we spent our days relaxing, and updating our web site. There is also an auto hobby shop where tools and expertise are available if you do the work.
We visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center and highly recommend it. They had lots of projects going on such as building a Umiak (large sealskin boat), huge dugout canoe, and traditional Alaskan dwellings from the different native groups. We have a picture of a traditional kayak on our web site from here. If you are interested in traditional crafts, there is are native craftspeople on site giving demonstrations.
While checking our emails we found that our friends Jason and Allison, who we had met on the ferry in Prince Rupert, were in the Kenai and we went out to meet them.
J & A’s van was named Dolores. We met up with them at the Russian River and spent the next month hanging out with them. They bought a Toursaver book and we were off. The fishing was good and we had learned of a great spot to catch reds. We spent a day fishing and caught enough fish for 70lbs of filets! What to do with them? You could have them smoked for $3.50 per pound, but as you can see, it would quickly add up. To solve this, we decided to set up a fish camp on the Anchor River outside of Homer. We picked up a smoker and went to work. We made loads of Salmon Jerky and smoked fillets. Pictures of our fish camp are on the web site. We saw our first Northern Lights August 4.
Salmon cut into strips
Soy sauce, Teriyaki, or hot sauce to cover the strips
Brown sugar, lots
Salt, a hand-full
Lemon juice, about a cup.
Cut fillets into strips and soak in a mixture of the above ingredients 2 nights. Hang the strips out to dry or until the outsides are tacky. Put the strips in the smoker for as long as it takes to dry them out.
They sell lots of salmon jerky in Alaska, but ours was by far the best we found. We found a guy in a packinghouse in Homer that let us vacuum pack our fish with their equipment.
From our fish camp we explored Homer. The town is set at the end of a peninsula and is hemmed in from the south by a glaciated mountain range. The sea is to the west, and in the distance in the north is a giant volcano. This is the most picturesque town in Alaska. There is a very active arts community there and lots of shops. We have a hand-full of pictures from Homer on our web site.
We made another stop at Clam Gulch where we free-camped on the beach. Here in addition to getting more clams, we met some salmon fisherman. One of the groups of fisherpersons was a family from North Carolina. They come up here each year to run their nets and camp on the beach. The kids just love it as you can imagine. They told us how the fishing works and it is amazing that anyone could do it.
They fisherman run nets perpendicular from the beach during a specified season on days when the fish and game authorities allow them to. What this means is that each morning with the tide they have to call Fish and Game to see if they can fish that day. This is determined by how many fish make it through the gauntlet to the river the day before. Fish counters are placed all along the river to keep track of how many fish make it. Species are differentiated by the fact that they do not run at the same time for the most part. Sounds very scientific?
Well, there are problems. They decided to apply a transmitter on one of the fish and follow it up the river. They found that the fish would cross the fish counter many times before it would go up to spawn. It appears that the fish run up and down the river trying to find their spawning stream. They may cross it a couple times before heading up. Fish and Game was counting events, apparently one fish could account for many events. Oops.
The third time was a charm. Armed with our tour saver books we did 4 more glacier cruises. If you are interested in visiting Alaska, Seward is a great place to go. There are many types of cruises that run from Seward, each has it’s own focus. When I first came here I figured, if you go on one cruise, you have done them all. With the Toursaver, we did them all. Let me tell you that each one has something to offer.
The Glacier Cruises have a long way to go so they motor out to the Glacier with a few stops along the way to see some Puffins and seals. Other cruises focus on finding whales, and some just stay in Resurrection Bay and slowly motor around the harbor. On this kind of cruise you get to see many more birds, sea otters, seals, etc. There aren’t any tidewater glaciers in the bay though. We also did a dinner cruise on one of the islands. Every chance to get out on the water in Alaska is a bonus.
We also did some fishing as the silver salmon derby was on. We spent a day running around in our boat and Allison caught a big silver salmon. Rob had the chance to go standby on one of the boats run by the military in Seward and caught a bunch of rockfish and silver salmon. The fishing is great!!
We did 2 hikes in Seward. One was using the boat out to Caines Head to see the ruins of a WWII military installation. The other was over the Harding Ice Field. Caines head is pretty popular with campers. We took the boat out to a beach near Derby Cove and hiked the rest of the way, munching on blueberries and salmonberries. The Harding Ice field was awesome. Most of the snow that was there on our earlier visit had melted away and we made good time up to the top. We camped that night near the emergency shelter on the top and had a magnificent view of the sun setting over the ice field. There are loads of pictures of this on the web site.
We had passed Whittier each time we went to the Kenai, finally we went there. Whittier is located at the other side of Portage. In fact, this is what the portage is for, as it saves hundreds of miles of sailing to get from Prince William Sound to Turnagain Arm. A road was opened this year for vehicle traffic for the first time. The road shares the railroad bed and is closed for various times during the day to accommodate the trains.
Whittier was built as a military base during WWII, and abandoned by the military in the 1970’s. Not much has happened there since. Nearly everyone in town lives in one of the old Military buildings (about 99.5%). With the road opened up, a lot of development is expected. Of course they plan to do it the “right” way. It is kind of sad really. Whittier is inhabited by old time Alaskans. The coming development is going to bring a lot of changes.
Here we met a guy who told us all about the town. Born in Alaska, he has lived here all his life and held about every job imaginable. He told us how the town is changing, and all the personality conflicts in what was a sleepy Alaskan town. Since there is usually nothing to do, everyone in the town comes to the town hall meetings. As they are Alaskans, this gets interesting. In fact, our friend brings all his guests to the meetings as they usually have a knockdown drag-out fight before it is all over. The latest fighting is over what color the residence building will be painted. People have very strong opinions.
We had some coupons and did a glacier cruise out of here too. If you only do one cruise, Whittier is the place to do it. This area was largely unaffected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Sea Otters are everywhere. We saw magnificent scenery, loads of Glaciers, lots of harbor seals, loads of sea otters, and a Salmon fishery.
The Salmon fishery was interesting. They have picked a site down a long arm of the bay where a small stream runs out. Here they release 300,000,000 (not a typo) pink salmon and wait 2 years for them to return. When we cruised in, the salmon were returning. For a mile, salmon were jumping everywhere. Near the site were trawlers scooping them up. A receiver ship sucks them out of the holds of the trawlers and transfers them to the cannery on shore. It is quite an operation. While there we saw a black bear lumber down to the water, matter-of-factly catch a fish and take it into the woods to eat. If you eat canned salmon, you are eating pinks.
If you are interested in doing some sea kayaking, Whittier is a good place to do it. It is a lot more convenient to reach than Glacier Bay and the scenery is about as good. After Whittier, we went back to the Air Force Base for a bit of R&R before heading up to Denali again.
Armed with our coupon books, the 4 of us (Rob, Mel, Jason, Allison) got tickets on the Denali Explorer Train for another run up to Denali. The train ride was good, but not quite worth the $300 RT. We had to leave the Mystery Machine and Delores in Anchorage and were traveling with our backpacks. No worries.
Once we got to Denali we booked our bus tickets and used coupons for the Alaska Nights dinner theater, a calm water raft trip, and a white water trip. This time we were camping near the Hotel and, since it was raining and snowing the whole time, we spent a lot of time in the hotel lobby playing 500.
It was great to see the park again. This time there was snow everywhere. The place was just magical. I highly recommend a visit at this time. Our calm water trip was good, but our white water trip was excellent. I had never before did a white-water raft trip while it was snowing! Fortunately we had dry-suits to wear. We celebrated Christmas on August 25 (a National Park Christmas) and caught the train back to Anchorage the next day.
We went three times to Denali and each one was special. Not so much because it is a unique destination, rather it changes so much with the seasons. The first trip in late June saw spring weather. Some flowers out and lots of snow. There was a chill in the air, but not too cold. The grass had not yet turned green and the leaves were not full.
By early July, summer was full on. Everything was green, and the snow was almost all gone. The weather was warm, and the mosquitoes heavy. All the animals were out and about, and all the baby animals were big enough to keep up with there mothers. We saw some red fox kits next to the road at Savage creek. They were beautiful with big round eyes.
Our last visit in late August showed that winter was coming on. The road was temporarily closed past the Eielson visitors center and all the areas of even moderate elevation were covered with snow. We saw bears, and the caribou showed up easily against the snow. We celebrated Christmas in August. Christmas in the National Park is in August to commemorate a year when it snowed in Yosemite on this date. They had a tree and everything. By this time, things were winding down in the park and the nearby attractions. The season was all but over and most of the seasonal employees (mostly students) had gone back to school.
If you head up this way, be sure to make a stop in Denali. You may not see all the animals you would like, but spectacular scenery abounds. Even if you have been before, as you can tell, the seasons move quickly and the park is a different place after only a few weeks. We are looking forward to our next visit. All we have to do is get there..
The drive to Valdez was good and we had another view of the Northern lights from our camp along the road. We did the tour of the Oil facility, did another Cruise to see the Columbia Glacier, got introduced to the North Slope drilling issue, and caught a bunch of Silver Salmon.
When we were in Valdez we learned some interesting facts. The oil starts out at the North Slope at a temperature of about 140F and arrives in Valdez at about 70F. Oil arrives at a cooler temperature in the summer than in the winter (this is because in winter the rivers freeze and insulate the pipes). The pipeline currently carries half the oil it did at first as the wells are slowing. This last statement will give you an idea of why there is pressure to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Alaskans nearly all want to drill. If you ran a poll, it would come out at around 90% in favor (just made this number up, but probably accurate). The reason they want to drill is because that is where Alaska gets all its operating revenue. In addition, each resident of Alaska gets a dividend check from oil proceeds. At this time it is around $1000 per person per year. A family of 5 gets $5000!
In addition to oil, there are thoughts of putting natural gas in the pipeline. Apparently there is even more gas than oil up there. All and all, the Alaskans are all for it. They resent people in the lower 48 telling them how to manage their wilderness. Of course, they don’t mind the Federal money spent up this way.
We had our fill of the big city and the 4 of us headed off for Kennecott/McCarthy in the Wrangell St Ellias National Park. There is not much left of Kennecott, but if you look on any Alaskan map you will see it. At one time it was the richest copper mine on earth. The prospectors that found it sold their claim to mining companies for millions of dollars back in the early 1900’s. McCarthy is a small town developed to serve the mine, and now that the mine is closed, it serves the Parks visitors.
The Kennecot Mining company is still in business, but not here. The remains of the mine were bought by the National Park Service and are being restored for reasons unknown to me at huge expense. To get there you can either fly, or take the road. We drove.
The road out is built on the old railroad bed. It is a good idea, but no-one bothered to remove the railroad ties that are still in the road! Also, each time the road is graded, old railroad spikes are spread back onto the road making it treacherous for tires. Thank goodness for BF Goodrich, we didn’t get a flat.
We camped near the bridge to McCarthy and hung out a day before heading on to Kennecott for some camping, Ice Climbing, and flight seeing. We camped out on the grounds of the old mine and hung out at the Kennecott resort. The area overlooks a glacier running out of the mountain. From the dining room we saw black bears foraging around the glacier. Thanks to the Toursaver, we did a Flight seeing trip and an Ice Climb. Both were excellent.
This was our first flight seeing trip, and boy was it worth it. It truly is the ONLY way to see the grandour of Alaska. The country is too big to be seen any other way. We all commented on how different it looks from a plane. Your perspective it just different than if you were walking down the valley below. We flew around the Nizina river and circled back around getting good views of the ice fields and the Glaciers pouring down the mountains. Wow! We also got to see the remains of the mine entrance on Bonanza ridge. A series of buildings clutching precariously on the side of a mountain. It seems impossible to have built them there until you learn they were tunneled out of the mines.
The Ice Climbing trip was my (Rob) favorite. Jason and I decided to go and since it was the end of the season, we were the only ones. The guide was excellent and he told us that we could do whatever we wanted. Our first into was to climb up a vertical face on the Glacer. After we managed that, we had to climb an area with an overhang. At least now I know how those guys do that. We were geared out in harnesses, helmets, crampons, and Ice Axes. We had an overhead rope and our guide made sure everything was safe.
That said, I had never done any climbing before, much less Ice Climbing. It was hard to push the “I BELIEVE” button and trust the rope, but I had many opportunities to do just that. From our first climb we headed back onto the glacier until we came across a big blue hole in the ice. Since Jason and I were willing to do most anything, the guide set us up.
Looking down into the blue abyss was scary, getting lowered into it was unnerving. Jason went first. He made it up with moderate effort so I was getting psyched. When my turn came along, I was lowered down below where I could be seen. There was a narrow ledge I was supposed to stop on, and a waterfall raging right next to it. I missed the ledge by a little bit, and was introduced to the finer aspects of Ice Climbing.
If ice is exposed to the sun and rain, it is much easier to get a bit on. Glacial ice that has been melted by running water deep inside a glacier is very brittle. My objective was to grab the ice with my axe, then fix my crampons and start climbing. The problem was that each time I swung the axe, the ice just flaked away. Even when I got a good hold, I had to swing my body towards the ice to fix the spikes of the crampons. It took me about an eternity to finally get fixed.
Climbing was much more difficult too. The idea of ice climbing is that you use only your legs. Arms are there for balance. You are supposed to stick your axes with your arms fully outstretched with a solid swing, then climb with your legs. When your arms are L shaped, you spread your legs out shoulder width and extend and swing. You are supposed to develop a pattern. Swing, swing, 1, 2, 3, 4 steps, spread your legs, stretch and swing. Repeat. With the ice as brittle as it was, I kept losing my hold and falling. Of course the top rope held me, but it was pretty unnerving. By the time I got to the top, I was exhausted. It was about as much excitement as I have had since the pipeline bungee in New Zealand.
We camped an Kennecott and did some day hikes. The day we were leaving it started snowing. This was our new cue as to when it was time to leave. We had to hack our way out as this was the first snow of the year, and by the time we got back it was about 6 inches of wet snow. Trees were fallen over the road. Time was running out and Jason and Allison had to get back to Vancouver and we were ready to move on. We drove to Tok and bade them farewell. They were off to the Canadian Rockies, Vancouver, then South America. We were off to Dawson City.
We spent a couple of days in the Alaskan wonderland called Tok before heading up the Taylor and Top of the World Highway to Dawson City. Making copious stops whenever a patch of blueberries sprung up, we made it to Chicken by nightfall. Chicken is a divided town. We stayed in “Beautiful Downtown” Chicken, not “Historic” Chicken. The two road houses are duking it out for the tourist buck. Here we were introduced to the practice of shooting ladies underwear out of a cannon. Mel oblidged and after packing them with about 400 grains of black powder and shooting them across the parking lot, her garments will forever adorn the ceiling of the bar in Beautiful Downtown Chicken. We closed the town and slept in front of the bar in our van. Of course the bartender was in the truck next to us.
I digress. Chicken was named after a lot of consideration by the local townspeople. During the gold rush (still going on around here) the locals wanted to name the town after the local bird, the Ptarmigan. Unfortunately, the couldn’t agree on how to spell it. Each faction had its’ own version. Since they couldn’t agree, they named the town Chicken.
By the time we made Dawson City, things were winding down. The streets were pretty empty, and the incoming tour busses reduced to a trickle. Armed with our Toursaver, we booked the last return run of the Yukon Queen River boat to Eagle and back. We had a full boat up, and were 2 of the 4 passengers on the return trip. The trip was good and we got to see some of the Yukon river. I fulfilled one of the requirements to be a Sourdough. I peed in the Yukon. The other two are mate with a native and wrestle a bear. One of three ain’t bad.
We got to learn about Dawsons colorful history and visit the replica of Jack Londons Cabin (the original is in San Francisco). There is a lot of history here and even more colorful characters. Since it was end of season, we got to go to all the hotels on their last dinners of the year. All you could eat! We stayed for the closing bash of Dawson, a dinner and jazz concert. After the show we were off to the Dempster highway!
The Dempster Highway runs over 480 miles from Dawson City across the Arctic Circle, from the Yukon to the Northern Territory, all the way to Inuvik. Inuvik is the furthest north city in North America. The road is gravel the whole way and a notorious eater of tires. We crossed three mountain ranges and two continental divides. Pictures from the road are on the web site.
The drive was uneventful fortunately. The scenery is magnificent. Snow covered mountains and valleys with fall colors in full view. We saw lots of moose, some caribou (mostly in various states of dismemberment as it was hunting season), a couple of bears, and by the end, a lot of snow. It took two and a half days to make the run up, mostly because the ferry at Ft McPherson couldn’t run due to wind. We got into some snow on the way up, but really got it on the way back. Good thing we had a 4WD van! We also gained a new friend, Gregor from Switzerland. We picked him up outside of Inuvik and he road with us all the way to Edmonton.
This is an actual conversation that took place. Rob and I simply answered um-hum every line or so....
This is big Jim talking, in camo, "Now, four years ago, me and Frank, we each got 4 moose (holds up 4 fingers for dramatic effect), and three years ago, well, me and Frank each got us at least 3 and everyone in camp had 2 or 3. (Now with two fingers up) and last year, hell, we each got at least 1 and most guys got 2. (Now he starts to whine) and this year nothin'. Didn't even see a damn moose. (I kid you not, he uttered these words) Those damn wolves!!! I'ma gonna shot me a wolf next time I sees one.
And the carnage begins. We were so excited to see the caribou crossing on our way up north, and we did. The hunters were there first. About two miles off the road we saw a small band milling about. On the road we saw caribou sawed in half, quartered, be-headed and you name it. We saw 3 bull moose (on the road... how STUPID can they be and still survive!!) that were alive the last time we saw them.
Long roads and boring drives broken up with spectacular scenery, some blizzard conditions and wildlife spotting. (Caribou, deer, big horn sheep, moose, buffalo, etc.) No flat tires.
From there we landed in Whitehorse for a few days of rest and a treat. After sleeping in the van for months we found a hotel on special. The desk clerk assured us all was safe with our car. That was before we had most of our camera equipment swiped. Once we get our stuff stolen it's "oh yeah, happens all the time". This is the reason we have no pictures from Valdez through Dawson City!
Edmonton is home to the West Edmonton Mall. Complete with water park and amusement park, dolphins, and submarines. The worlds largest, but surprisingly there was not much there for us. I (Rob) gave a lecture at the Cross Cancer Centre on film dosimeters and they showed me around. We enjoyed the fruits of city life for a few days before heading onwards towards the rockies.
The Canadian Rockies October 1 - 10
Our first stop out of Edmonton was the Miette hot springs. After spending so much time in cold weather we decided to spend some time (7 hrs) soaking in the hot pools (104F). Good thing too, this morning we awoke to 6 inches of fresh powder and icicles inside the car!! We had to put the thing we didn't want frozen inside the ice chest. Winter is here!
We spent 2 weeks in the area known as the
Canadian Rockies and have some advice: GO THERE!! Great place. It may help that
we traveled during the off season (no crowds) and had beautiful weather to boot.
The rockies covers a relatively small area with one very touristy town (Banff) at one end and a laid-back, cafe type town (Jasper) at the other. We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving in Lake Louise on October 8. There are actually several parks congruent with each other: Banff Nat'l Park, Jasper Nat'l Park, and Mt. Robson Provincial Park. A $75.00 Canadian Dollar pass covers all parks in Canada for a year.
Aside from relaxing in two of the three hot springs and several day hikes we explored Mt. Robson via the Mt Robson trail on a tip from our traveling companions in Alaska, Jason and Alison. This trail encompassed the most spectacular scenery per kilometer of any trail we've EVER been on. The total distance covered was 40 kilometers, a two day hike. We had such great weather and started late the first day so spread it into a leisurely 3 day hike. An advantage of going off season was there was almost no-one on the trail and no access fee. We had a great time and took advantage of the shelters along the way to warm up. No snow, but sub-zero temps were rough in our old sleeping bags. We have loads of pictures from our visit to Banff and the Mt Robson trail in our photos online. Check them out to see how amazing the area is.
Rockies October 10 - 18
We are looking forward to visiting friends and family along the way and hope to get by and see many of you. We are READY for some warm weather!
Thought these News Items were interesting:
The ex-Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, passed away while we were here. To read the paper, you would think people everywhere were mourning his loss. Aside from the flags at half-staff, nary a word was spoken in the cafes, on the street, etc.
Also of interest-We visited a town called
Eagle in Alaska. Eagle is way up the Yukon River. The townsfolk rely on Salmon
for a variety of needs. One need is to feed the many dog teams used for winter
transport. The dogs are vital to people over the winter. This year, the Salmon
runs were low. So low, in fact, the townspeople are faced with putting their
dogs down instead of watching them die.
From Banff we made a bee-line to Washington and visited some family prior to reaching Bailey and Ron's. We had a great stay in Oregon and were ready for the next run to Las Vegas where Rob will be headlining at a meeting of the Lake Meade Chapter of the Health Physics Society (Nov 9).
We ran ourselves ragged driving from Oregon to Tennessee and seeing sights along the way. I think we packed more into November than the whole trip to Alaska. Here are the highlights:
The casinos are Mel's weakness and she entertained herself with $5.00 on the nickel slots. Thanks to Rob, we came out .20 ahead. We skied for a day at nearby Boreal and saw the Lake Tahoe region for the first time. We'll definitely return in the future.
Onto Lava Beds National Preserve where lunar landscapes stretch out in all directions and we enjoyed the numerous petroglyphs. We can't resist hot springs and visited several in the Sierra Mountains. The Californians have some beautiful areas in their backyard.
To reach Death Valley National Park (DV) we took some serious 4 WD roads through the Volcanic Tablelands. If anyone is interested, we can recommend a book and several top drives. Once in DV we headed for the dunes. What an incredible place! These are the largest dunes west of the Rockies and look out of place between the mountains; like a giant sandbox in the middle of a garden. We were excited to have the place to ourselves and we envisioned the same isolation at the hot springs we planned to visit the following day. Imagine our surprise when we pulled up to a small oasis in the middle of nowhere and found not only hot springs but a very relaxed dress code. We had a blast and stayed 4 days. You can read more about it at the end of the update.
This is Mel writing. I am relating a draft I jotted down when we were in "the thick and the thin" of it. I can't tell you where this place is as we've been sworn to secrecy-sorry.
The place is actually a set of natural springs people have visited for a long time. Volunteers built a variety of idyllic tubs and planted palms and other shrubs to cut the wind. It is in the middle of the desert. Clothing is optional, which in this case means no clothes. You'd feel like a real "boob" wearing anything anyway! Rob and I have visited nude beaches but this was different in that we were in close contact with others in clear water.
All kinds come to bathe. It isn't just die-hard naturalists, hippies, etc. The mix was refreshing and bizarre; all ages, socioeconomic status and backgrounds. I should mention all comfort levels also. There were equal numbers of males and females, young and old.
The place is free and is run by a volunteer. People can stay up to 30 days within a given calendar year. People donate money and supplies. A lot of regulars also help out with grounds upkeep.
Rob has never had a problem with nudity and was at ease day one sitting on the edge of the pool carrying on a conversation. I wasn't so comfortable and stayed in the pool until the crowds thinned and I could grab my sarong quickly. By day 3 I was pretty much at ease. I did notice the men in general had no modesty and the women in general weren't as comfortable. The guys even dug a ditch and played horseshoes in the buff.
Conversation rarely centered on being nude but most people seemed to not take an issue with it. Anyway, after awhile, even I "forgot" people weren't clothed. I did have to giggle when I saw people walking around with nothing on but socks, shoes and a hat!
I composed a "Top Five Things About Being Nude" list:
1. No tan lines.
2. No one says, "I don't have a thing to wear!"
3. Laundry day is a cinch.
4. Showing off those "hidden" tattoos.
5. Your belt doesn't have to match your shoes.
Friends graciously hosted us in Las Vegas. Aside from a quick visit to Hoover Dam and more casinos, Rob delivered a lecture on Film Dosimetry to the local chapter of the Health Physics Society.
We couldn't resist a couple of days in Sedona; one of Mel's all time favorite places. It is such a special place but sadly "yuppified" and very crowded. A quick stop at Casa Grande National Park where the drive was worth the museum itself but the big house isn't much to see. We also took a side trip to Carlsbad Caverns and went on a "behind the scenes tour" of areas only accessed with a guide. Stick to the main area!
We had a long drive to Dallas for Thanksgiving. We were thrilled to see family and friends for a few days before heading to Hot Springs, Arkansas for a soak and an overnight visit with family (Thanks again!) and onto Knoxville. Again, friends graciously hosted in Knoxville.
December-Our Knoxville stay ended early and we headed for Florida with a stop in Atlanta (Thanks to family there!). We collapsed at Rob's moms' house in Florida and sat on the couch with our tongues hanging out. We had a great Christmas with family and friends and made it back to Dallas to ring in the New Year with friends. We spent NYE in their hot tub with several inches of snow blanketing their backyard.
The Mystery Machine is a 77 Ford E250 Van with a Pathfinder 4X4 conversion. It has a big motor: 460ci, and big tires (33X16.5X12.5 BFG AT’s). Pretty big, and we used the space. I think anything longer than a van would make it difficult to drive off road. The ultimate rig in my mind is a van converted to a camper with a high enough roof to stand in and 4 wheel drive. If you look at our pictures you will see Delores, a dodge camper van parked next to ours in front of a glacier. This van in 4X4 would be my dream vehicle. I am somewhat interested in Unimogs.
The BFG 33" ATs' are great tires. The roads can be pretty rough and the more ply's you can get the better. The road to Wrangell St Ellias (Kennecott/McCarthy) is on an old railroad bed complete with rail spikes! We had 1 excellent spare that we never used. Many people like to put an innertube in their tires, though we didn't.
We have one of those 3 gallon bar-b-q sized cylinders. It is plenty. I also have a new fitting that allows refilling of those non-refillable small propane bottles. Havn't used it yet, but I can see it would be useful in making my stove portable.
We use a 2 burner propane stove with a hose attached to the big propane bottle. Works great. No fuss no muss. We have 2 pots that fit together like a double boiler, a steaming basket, a cast iron skillet and some back country pots for our Optus camping stove. We only used the back country pots when camping. We also carried a grill surface for cooking on open fires. Keep it simple!!
We have a plastic tub that we fill with boiling water and a dab (for you scientist types who need Scientific International Units: 1 dab = 1 smidgen) of dish soap. Wash wearing dish-gloves and no rinse is necessary. Towel dry and put away.
We have one of those 6 gallon plastic jugs with a spout that I mounted to a plywood panel I put on the side wall of the van (plywood screwed to the support beams so I can screw on a cabinet, shelves and support brackets for my water jug. This is plenty of water in AK.
None, an alternate battery would be helpful, but we didn't put one in till late. The sun stays up for almost all the time you will need light. We carried a propane light and NEVER hooked it up.
There is no shortage of campgrounds with power hookups for those who cannot leave their satellite TV behind. I never saw the benefit in paying $25+ per night and staying in one of these. What do these people come to Alaska for anyway. After spending $500,000 on a motorhome, I would hope that it would be self sufficient!!
We slept in the van. Make the bed comfortable. We brought our feather duvet and it was fabulous even in sub zero temperatures. In AK and Canada you can safely pull over most anywhere. On the way lots of people sleep at the Safeway and Wal Mart National forests (any 24 hr grocer usually lets you). If possible, make your set up somewhat covert for those times when you don't want people to be sure you are in there. We may have paid to camp 10 nights in 6 months...
Only used it 2 times, though 1 was for about 300 miles on the Dempster in a snowstorm. Nice to have, but not really necessary. There are not many roads in AK anyway. We travelled with an Australian couple who had a dodge van camper. They went everywhere we did (and had a few flats), and the first time I used the 4X4 was to pull them off the beach in Clam Gulch.
The world is your toilet.... We did have a chamber pot so we didn't have to get out of the van in the middle of the night. We started with a porto-potty chemical type, but gave it up as a big pain. There is no shortage of wilderness to bury your business in.
Didn't have it other than the stove. Of course you can't go to sleep with the stove on... It would have been nice to have had a proper heater where running it doesn’t threaten your life. The van was small enough that our breath took the edge out of the coldness at night.
This is generally not a problem....
If you go north during the hot months (July/Aug) they are MERCILESS. We spent most of our time in the Kenai where they weren't too bad. Our Australian friends were up north during the hot months. They didn't seem to notice the bugs on the few occasions we found them in the Kenai.
We carry a hand winch and never used it. A good winch would be great, but I really don't want to spend more than $100. I guess that is why I don't have one... Hand winches rarely fail and don’t need power other than you...
The trip is great. I highly recommend driving to Prince Rupert and taking the ferry with as many stops as you can manage up the inside passage. Make your van self contained so you can camp anywhere. Don't bother getting a State park pass (we did get a National Park pass that is a good deal). There is no shortage of free camps.
We brought an inflatable boat and motor and spent 8 days camping in the bay. You can take a ferry from Juneau and rent sea kayaks for about $50 a day. This is really the best way to see the bay as you can go everywhere with a sea kayak whereas motor boats are restricted in some areas (our boat was classified the same as a fishing trawler).
We went about 4 times over the summer and it is easily our favorite. You can drive your car out to the Teklanika campground though you should reserve this ASAP. THere are lots of campgrounds you can tent camp in. The busses are great, and the back country camping is excellent.
Also excellent. Did an Ice Climbing tour and got to climb on a glacier. Excellent!!!
A most excellent place to sea kayak out of.
Once you do one, you will find that this is really the only way to SEE Alaska.
We used ours mainly in Glacier bay. A sea kayak would be more practical as you don't have to worry about feul, only food. We didn’t use the boat nearly as much as I thought we would, but were glad we had it none-the-less.
A wise man once said that working is for those people who don’t know how to fish. If you will be up here for the summer, buy a year liscense ($100 but worth it if you like to fish). Shorter term licenses are available. You will need an ultra light rig and one with about 12 or 20 lb test for salmon.
Get some good gore-tex. We have Mt Hardware 3 layer gore tex jackets and pants. It WILL rain. The locals look at it like liquid sunshine. If you don't get out there when it is raining, you will never do it.
AK is an outdoor wonderland. We brought a shotgun too, but ended up never carrying it. Problem bears are to be avoided. We encountered MANY bears and never had a problem. The locals ALL bring weapons. It is really up to you, though once you fire at one you are COMITTED to killing it, no easy task. Whatever you do, use highly penetrating shells. I bought rifled german made slugs.
Buy a TOUR SAVER BOOK IF THEY ARE STILL AVAILABLE. They are sold in Safeway. See if you can get one sent to you. Call the safeway in Anchorage if necessary. The coupons are good for stuff in Alaska and Canada. It has $1000's of dollars in savings. Get one for each of you. Most of the coupons are for FREE tours. We did 6 all day cruises with dinner for FREE, rt train to denali for FREE, Dinner theater for FREE, etc.
We head to Mexico January 15 to see Copper Canyon, the West coast and Baja. We're hoping to finish our book before heading to Southern California to see everyone, pick up our stuff and make the trek back east to settle in Knoxville in early July.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert and Melissa Gunter. All rights reserved.