Going to the Sun

September 26

Wildlife: Bison; elk; antelope

Miles: 225; 90; 440

At Granite Chalet, Glacier NP

At Granite Chalet, Glacier NP

When we woke up our last morning in Canmore, the water in the van didn’t work. It was frozen at the hose connector. Time to head south.

Waterton Lakes

Waterton Lakes

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Waterton Village is a peaceful little tourist stop nestled on the shore of a big lake, with mountains rising in the background. There’s an easy bike ride around the village, and a hopping little lounge that stays open late.

The wind howls at Waterton Lakes.

From Waterton we crossed back over into the Lower Forth-Eight and headed for Glacier National Park. Driving up Going to the Sun Road from St. Mary’s, we could see the results of the fire that kept us from visiting the park in July. The fire had swept across the road and consumed forests on either side almost all the way to Logan Pass.

We camped at Abgar Village, which sits on the western shore of Lake MacDonald, a pleasant, wooded campground with no

Prince of Wales Inn

Prince of Wales Inn

electric hookups. We discovered we can camp without plugging in. Okay, we camped sans hook-up at Denali, but after Glacier we are convinced.EB1A1886

There’s a nice bike path we rode around the village, but it doesn’t go around, or even beside, the lake, which is an indication of American short-sightedness. You can ride on the main road which runs along the lake for miles, but it’s narrow, busy, and no substitute for a dedicated bike path.

They’d also stopped the park’s shuttle service. A great hike is from Logan Pass to the Loop, which covers about 11 miles, climbing a thousand feet before dropping 2200 feet to a hairpin curve near where Going to the Sun Road bottoms out. Without the connecting shuttle, we decided to park at the Loop, hike the 4.5 miles to the Granite Chalet, and return.

Lake McDonald

Lake McDonald

Due to a fire that took out much of the forest along the trail since we previously hiked it, most of the route had excellent visibility, but also harsh and constant exposure to the sun. So while we were on balance glad summer was running long this year, there were a couple of very trying hours that afternoon. It wasn’t helped by hiking at over 8000 feet above sea level.

Burned out forest

Burned out forest

I have a better appreciation of the park after this visit. We met two couples on the trail who are regulars and who have hiked “all” the trails in the park.   I realize from conversing with them, and from looking at the park map more intently, that we’ve got a lot of nice hikes waiting for our next visit, especially on the east side of the pass and at the Two Medicine section on the southern side of the park, which I had previously ignored.

Our trek south next took us back to Gardiner, Montana, at the Mammoth Hot Springs gate to Yellowstone, where we’d spent several days back at the beginning of our journey. We reprised our dinner of elk nachos and bison burger at the Iron Horse, where we were able to dine outside, much to everyone’s surprise and delight.

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Do More in Canmore

Wegwam and Three Sisters, Canmore

Wegwam and Three Sisters, Canmore

September 20

Miles: Maybe 20

Wildlife: Elk; elk; elk

We did more in Banff, but we are doing some in Canmore.

We spent a couple nights in a Banff hotel, because Rebecca needed to get some work done. (In fact she’s at the Canmore library working again, now.)

EB1A1469We awoke our first morning to snow. The trees were draped with a lovely white blanket, which melted away at ground level by mid-day and was gone from the mountainsides by the end of the day. The peaks are still snow-covered, however.

Banff is a large little mountain town, which owes its existence to a nearby hot springs that was Canada’s first national park. The town has a main commercial strip that extends for about five blocks, plus a parallel road running about half that length. There are hotels for another few blocks up the main drag. Beyond that is a grid of residential streets; the size of the town will surprise you when seen from above.EB1A1564

We went back into camper mode for three nights, staying at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court, which turned out to be a great campground despite its name.

Our first hike was down Tunnel Mountain to Surprise Corner on the Bow River. There’s a waterfall at that point, which is more of a set of cascading rapids than a true fall, but there’s a lot of water going very fast so it’s a pretty impressive sight.

Tunnel Mountain and Bow River

Tunnel Mountain and Bow River

The Surprise in Surprise Corner is you can’t actually see the falls from the trail when you get there.

EB1A1616We discovered a nice bonus in Banff is that the bus system runs up to the EB1A1644campground, so for our next-day’s adventure we took the bus to the tram station at the bottom of Sulphur Mountain. Rather than ride the tram up, however, we hiked. The trail climbs from 5200 feet to nearly 7500 feet elevation in around six kilometers.

The views from the top are stunning, even on a cloudy day. (Every day is apparently cloudy here.)

We were able to take the tram down without paying since nobody was taking tickets for the “return” trip.

Mount Louis

Mount Louis

On our last day we rode our bikes down the mountain and about town on the bike trail, and wound up at a small canyon, Sundance, just outside town, where we were able to get in another hike.

EB1A1581The views at our campsite were spectacular, but that was only half the fun of staying there.

One morning around four Rebecca jostled me and said, “What was that noise?”

“Whaa?”

Then it happened again, a combination of a low bellowing sound accompanied by a noise one might have heard coming from my trumpet back in the day. We peered out into the darkness and saw several elk cows grazing under a street light, and in the shadows an elk bull, who was bugling, presumably a wooing song,EB1A1612

We had appetizers at the Banff Avenue Brewing Company one afternoon, where we were served with a passable IPA. Earlier that day we sampled elk poutine at another eatery. Poutine is French fries, gravy, cheese curds, and usually an accompanying layer of meat. It’s the national food of Canada, and it’s surprisingly good. (Remember the pasties in the U.P.?) I think of poutine as the northern version of nachos.

EB1A1631The last night we went to see “A Walk in the Woods.” If you’ve read the book, don’t waste your time seeing the movie, unless you’re just dying to see how old Robert Redford is now.

Whereas Banff is ringed by massive massifs, Canmore is more like sitting in a corridor with giant mountains running down either side.

The reason we first came to Canmore was due to a lack of services in Banff. Specifically, you can’t get your propane tank filled in Banff. We were lucky we got our tire fixed in Jasper, because you’d be hard-pressed to get EB1A1534tire service in Banff, either.

Canmore is a bit bigger than Banff, with a street of brand-name commercial enterprises. It’s also got a nice mayonnaise (see Smith lexicon) town center. It’s a pretty setting.  There’s a nice bakery with a twin in Banff.

It’s also got a brewery, the Grizzly Paw. Their IPA may be the best of the trip.

Campsite sunrise.  Only manipulation was with shutter.

Campsite sunrise. Only manipulation was with shutter.

Does that tire look screwy to you?

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September 12-14

Miles: 330 to Jasper; 180 to Banff

Wildlife: Deer; elk

We got our oil changed in Dawson Creek, and air in the tires.

Back left tire was really low.

EB1A1257The drive to Jasper was mostly cloudy and rainy. The scenery was probably pretty nice; fall has kept up with us, although there is a greater variety of hardwoods and thus more green.

The topography of this part of Canada is interesting. There are long stretches of level driving, then a sudden descent into a valley with some of the longest, steepest stretches of road we’ve encountered.

The town of Grande Cache was one giant coal mine. The other energy sector, petrol, was well-represented throughout the region with new sites cutting off from the highway at frequent intervals. The town of Grande Prairie (population nearly 70,000), in the midst of former farm country, was sprawling with brand new commercial development, of the strip-shopping-mall variety.EB1A1276

As we neared Jasper, it quit raining, and we got a fair look at the cloud-obscured scenery. After we made camp in Whistler Campground, we biked into town.

Jasper is pure mountain tourist attraction. The shops on the main street look brand new. I’d say it rivals Leavenworth, Washington, with better views but less kitsch. We had a good IPA at the Jasper Brewing Company, complemented by outstanding duck confit sliders.

The next day we went on a nice hike above Pyramid Lake, then visited Maligne Canyon, where the river has cut a 50-foot-deep gash in the rocks that is, at places, less than ten feet across.

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When we got back to the campground, an elk bull and hid harem had taken up residence.EB1A1459

Monday morning we got packed for the drive to Banff, checked the tire pressure, and headed for the local air pump. We found one tire service center, and after a false start decided to let the man take a look at the tire.

Maligne Canyon

Maligne Canyon

He found screw in the tire, and made necessary repairs.

So we hit the road for Banff, via the Icefield Highway. It’s a beautiful drive, with dramatic, sheer stone mountains reaching above 3000 meter, waterfalls, and glaciers. At least, what we could see was nice, though mostly obscured by clouds, fog, and some falling snow.

Along the way we stopped for a couple of waterfalls where the Athabasca River squeezed through narrow passages, sending the water roaring out the bottom side.

The main feature of the road is the massive Columbia Icefield, which is mostly hidden behind the mountains, but makes an impressive appearance in the form of the Athabasca Glacier, which nearly touches the highway – although not nearly so nearly as it did when the road was built. Like all good glaciers, it is in retreat.

Athabasca Glacier

Athabasca Glacier

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Prettiest Drive in North America?

Watson Lake to Fort Nelson, about 300 miles

Wildlife:  Bison; caribou; mountain sheep; black bear; moose

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I knew that the Alaska Highway crossed through the Canadian Rockies somewhere north of Fort Nelson, British Columbia, from my map-hawking last winter when I was planning our trip.

EB1A1125It did not occur to me that I didn’t really know what that meant until I got there.  I’d always thought of Banff and Jasper as the Canadian Rockies, but they don’t stop in Jasper.  The highway has to get around them somewhere.  More appropriately, it has to get through them.

The fall colors coming out of Watson Lake were even more vivid than they’d been the previous thousand miles, if that’s conceivable.EB1A1106

Right out of the gate, we encountered a bison grazing beside the road.  Soon enough, we encountered several dozen more, congregating on the shoulder and in the road.

The rights-of-way of the highway are kept closely cropped for 20 or 30 yards to each side.  It turns out that’s done so you can see the animals along the side before you run into them.

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The landscape was Montanish, open country with big rolls and some good-sized mountains here and there, along with a goodly number of rivers and lakes.

EB1A1217Then we got to the Rockies, and all bets were off.  The mountains rose steeply to either side.  There was an interesting mix of yellow-bottomed mountains, with reddish tundra tops.  There were giant gray stone mountains devoid of plant life.  The road hugs the shore of Muncho lake as it twists, narrowly, toward the southeast. (Where, incidentally, I saw the highest-priced gasoline I’ve seen on the trip, by at least 30%; extortion, I tell you.)EB1A1098

It wasn’t just a quick climb over the mountains and drive off.  The route wound its way through the Rockies for a hundred kilometers.

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Summit Lake

It finally crested the mountains at Summit Lake, at around 4000 feet, and then started down.  There’s a nice Provincial Campground at Summit Lake that would make a great plae to stay a few nights.  There are dozens of hiking trails in the area.  We didn’t.

The going down was more radical than the going up had been, culminating in the broadest vistas we have seen on the trip.  At one point I thought I saw Denali (just kidding, not even Denali is visible from 1000 miles away, at least not 1000 miles on the planet).

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Did I mention wildlife?  In the space of an hour we saw bison, a moose, two groups of sheep (not the domestic variety), caribou, a pair of deer-like beasts we weren’t sure if were caribou or Elk, and a black bear.  (Mikey, if you don’t know what they are, that means they are probably elk.)

Walter

Walter

The road out wasn’t all roses.  There was a lot of construction,

Karen

Karen

leading to several miles of pilot-car-led excursions across mucky gray stuff that goes underneath pavement.

Not long after we got settled into our campground, Karen and Walter pulled in, and we had them over to our picnic table for munchies.

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That night, we got another look at the Aurora Borealis.  If we see them again, I believe we will have seen the Northern Lights from as many different locations as we saw Denali, I mean Mount Denali.

Mystery Meat

Mystery Meat

Don't try this at home.

Don’t try this at home.

Sign-Tree Forest

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Whitehorse to Watson Lake, about 300 miles

Wildlife:  Willow Ptarmigan

Whitehorse is a bustling little city with lots of personality.  It’s got a grid of streets in the downtown area with a variety of storefronts, many with classic flat, squared cutout facades like an old western town.

whiteThere’s a big old paddle-wheeled riverboat, the Klondike, dry-docked on the banks of the mighty Yukon River.

The town does not rely on tourists.  It’s a major intersection between reality and the north, and there’s plenty of industry, including a gasoline refinery.  There’s even a “Real Canadian Superstore” for grocery, etc., shopping, although it doesn’t rival the one we visited in Prince George.  Prince George may be remote, but Whitehorse is way out there.

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Not Walter and Karen

We ran into our German friends, Walter and Karen, in our campground, an wound up crossing paths with them several more times down the road.

The last night in Whitehorse we were treated to another view of the Northern Lights.

The road from Whitehorse to Watson Lake (we never actually saw a Watson Lake) was spectacular.  The yellow leaves of the alders were dazzling.

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There were plenty of mountains, rivers and lakes.

We made two stops along the way (other than my annoying attempts to get the perfect leaf picture).

EB1A0971First we saw a cutoff for Rancheria Falls, so we parked an walked the short hike along a mostly plank trail to an interesting set of falls.  An island splits the river right at the fall line, so there are actually double falls on either side of the island.

The second planned stop was at the Liard Hot Springs.  This is a natural hot springs that smells like Yellowstone Park.  The Yukon has made a provincial park of the springs.  EB1A0991They’ve built a nice plank walkway to them, along with a cedar (appropriately) changing house next to the springs.  They’ve protected the springs without spoiling them.

We spent a good half hour bobbing in the hot water.  It was about as hot as one could stand.  We ran into Walter and Karen in the springs.

EB1A1025When we got to Watson Lake, we went for a walk around the town’s lake (not Watson), and got our best exercise in several days.

Then we saw the most original sight on the entire Alaskan Highway:  The Sign-Tree Forest.

There were hundreds upon hundreds of posts stuck up, and nailed (or screwed, or bludgeoned) to them were street signs, town limit signs, license tags, wood-cut signs for every conceivable location.  There were license tags from every state, some European road signs.  Hand-scrawled signs.EB1A1019

And it seemed to go on forever.

It wasn’t the most unusual sign in the forest, but one of the pictures I assume you’ll see associated with this post was easily the best discovery.  I’ll leave that for you to figure out.

We did not see the northern lights that night.

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Delta Junction to Dawson Creek: Check

daw

We have completed the journey from Delta Junction, Alaska, to Dawson Creek, British Columbia.

Some of you nitpickers will argue we did not drive the entire Alaska Highway, which is correct.  We took the long way from Delta Junction to Tok, adding about 150 miles to the trip.

But some 1500 miles later, we are here in Dawson Creek.

I’m going to blog this out of order.  We went in stages from Tok to Whitehorse, Whitehorse to Watson Lake, Watson Lake to Fort Nelson, and finally the last leg to here.

I didn’t take any pictures on this last leg, other than the gratuitous shot of the Mile Zero arcana.  It’s not that the drive wasn’t pretty, to the contrary, it was another beautiful drive through the fall, with mountains and vistas.  You may not be able to see in the photo, but we’re in short sleeves – we finally outran autumn.  Never fear, cold weather will catch us in Jasper.

But it was mostly a leg to finish.

Unlike the rest of the highway, this final stretch is not solitary.  The petroleum bust has not reached this part of Canada.  The road is filled with industrial trucks.  Many of the RV campgrounds have been taken over for housing for the “roughnecks” as Rebecca found oilfield workers may be called, if the internet is to be believed.  The temporary housing for these workers would be looked upon by refugees from hurricanes with envy, although once you’ve survived the hurricane you probably aren’t going to be confronted with winter days in the double-digit-belows.

In any event, we now have the Canadian Rockies to look forward to, with another 300-or-so mile jaunt to Jasper.  I say “Canadian Rockies” from a different perspective now, having yesterday passed through them where I didn’t realize they were.

I will, internet willing, post this message and then get on with culling the photos and trying to summarize the previous two legs of the trip.

Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hills

Miles: Tok to Whitehorse 388: Valdez to Tok 254; Fairbanks to Valdez 364

Wildlife: Moose, Eagle, Swans, Black Bear, Fox

September 8

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Fall for Alaska

It’s going to be about driving for a while. We’ve got to get to the end of the Alaska Highway, some 800+ miles, then another 500 or so to Jasper. (Today is actually a day of rest in Whitehorse while Rebecca catches us on her work and I rest up from a cold.)

EB1A0837The commercial history of Alaska revolves around commodities: Furs, then gold, then salmon, then oil.

And now we’re back to gold again. That is, much of the Alaskan economy is driven by the tourist industry. And if all tourists are as lucky as we are …

There are snow-peaked mountains as far as you can see. There’s abundant wildlife. There are loads of outdoor activities.

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But as we wound our way out of Alaska, we were awestruck by the Autumn foliage. Mountainsides and valleys were burstingEB1A0937 with golden leaves, from one end of the Alaskan interior (Fairbanks) to the border with Yukon. (The vivid color did not stop at the border)

So driving hundreds of miles, mouth agape, was not a chore.

Our route took us from Fairbanks to Delta Junction, where the Alaska Highway ends. We then took the Richardson Highway south to Glennallen, and continued south toward Valdez. We stopped for the night about 80 miles from Valdez. The next morning we’d intended to drive partway to Valdez before turning back for Tok, buy instead we drove all the way down. It was (another) beautiful drive, following the pipeline past mountains, a really big lake, and through a couple of canyons. Just shy of Valdez the road climbs to Thompson pass, then drops quickly 2000 feet to the sea.

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On the way back up, as we crested a high ridge, we could see north forever, and what do you think peeked up for a few seconds? Denali.

In the campground in Tok, we met a young Swiss couple who had canoed the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, where they sold their canoes and bought bicycles, which they intended to ride the Alaska Highway with an ultimate destination of Vancouver.

Later that night we witnessed, yet again (ho hum) the Northern Lights.

The road through the Yukon was totally under construction for a good 100 kilometers. As in, the road was gravel. It made for slow driving and taut nerves. We did, however, have an excellent view of the Kluane mountains.

Trusty assistant Rebecca manned the camera as we rode through the Yukon.

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