Delta Junction to Dawson Creek: Check

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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.

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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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A Fair City

Miles: 175

Wildlife: Sand hill cranes

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Fairbanks has gotten a bad rap. It doesn’t get the same glowing reviews as the other “big” cities of Alaska, Juneau and Anchorage.

Take away the port and the Mendenhall Glacier, and Juneau has nothing over the same-sized Fairbanks.

EB1A0643EB1A0617Okay, so Fairbanks doesn’t have the geographic attractions of the coastal towns. It does have perhaps the best visitors center in the state, a modern building (as opposed to be Russian cold-war architecture of much of the state) housing room after room of museum displays depicting the history and culture of the Alaskan interior (and exterior).

Fairbanks has a river running through it, the Chena, with the requisite bike path. We rode it from end to end, a nice leg stretcher. The town requires bikers to ride on sidewalks, which is great for both bikers and carrers.

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We stayed at the Riverside Resort Campground on the edge of town. Our campsite was waterfront, so it was a pleasant view. On our first evening in town, we saw and heard several V’s of sandhill cranes flying overhead. Several thousand of the birds spend their summers aroundEB1A0489EB1A0688 Fairbanks. Interestingly, on the second day we saw none; apparently they left for the sunny South.

We took a nice small-bus tour of the city, which included a visit to the oil pipeline, and culminated with a stop at the Museum of the North, located at the city’s branch of the University of Alaska system. The portion of the campus housing the museum is comprised of several futuristic scientificy buildings. The museum had more interesting cultural artifacts, plus lots of stuffed animals, skeletons, and some interesting fossils.

Near downtown is Pioneer Park, a recreation of a gold-rush-era town made up of several old houses moved from various points around the city. It’s mostly little gift shops, but there’s a museum, the train car occupied by President Warren Harding when he came to town to drive a golden spike, and a beached riverboat where you can walk through the engine compartment.

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Although Fairbanks doesn’t have any cruiseships, it still courts a large tourist population. The main draw of the town, other than winter days that reach 50-below temperatures, is the Aurora Borealis. We were told in winter cruise ships from Anchorage send busloads of tourists to Fairbanks just to witness the northern lights.

Rebecca had been told Fairbanks was ground zero for the northern lights. Since we’d seen them in Seward, and not seen them in Denali, we weren’t geared up for them.

But Thursday night we were woken up around midnight by our Japanese neighbor scurrying around with camera and tripod, so we went outside, and there they were.

We were treated to a show of green swirls, lines, arcs, and circles, with a few dabs of pink thrown in, that lasted for a good hour.

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Fairbanks was our farthest point north. It’s time to start heading south and east, before winter sets in.

Daily Dose of Denali

September 1

Miles:  160

Wildlife:  Moose; Caribou; Grizzly Bears; Dall Sheep; Golden Eagle

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We hear that you’re lucky to see the mountain that only 30% of the visitors to Denali National Park actually get to see the mountain formerly known as Mount McKinley.

EB1A9964Well, as previously reported we saw Denali in Anchorage, then on the road to Talkeetna, then in Talkeetna and on the train.

The ride up the Parks Highway to Denali was spectacular, due in no small part to the breathtaking views of the mountain.

We checked into the park campground, Riley Creek, and set up camp without either water or electricity.  And EB1A9923(relatively) cold weather.  We had dinner and then waited for the predicted Aurora Borealis which failed to materialize, if you can call something so ephemeral “material.”

Wednesday morning we got up at the crack of dawn and shivered our way to the Wilderness Access Center to get on our 7:30 a.m. bus.

The day was perfect.  No clouds, not hot (it was chilly on the bus).  We rode for about four an a half hours to the turnaround at Eielson Visitors’ Center, where one gets an overwhelming look at Denali.

EB1A0054Along the way we got several good look at Denali, along with a full allocation of wildlife.

First we saw moose on the mountainside, then grizzly bears, and finally dall sheep.  On the return we saw more bears, sheep, and a bunch of caribou.  Just before the end of the line, a moose cow and calf crossed the road right in front of us.

The road through the park is no walk in the park.  It climbs pretty steadily to gaps measuring close to 4000 feet in elevation.  That may not sound like much, but the park entrance is under 1000 feet.EB1A0164

The bus drivers must have nerves of steel.  They are driving old-school school buses (with improved seats) from the Blue Bird Bus Company (Thomasville, NC).  There is heat in the bus, and you can open the windows from the top down to take photos, as well as to freeze out the people seated behind you.

Approaching Polychrome Pass, so named because the mountains are very colorful (there’s a lot of iron in Alaskan mountains), the road climbs steeply on one twisting lane, reminiscent of Sheets Gap Road if you happen to have been there, except narrower and with slightly better scenery.  This is a gravel road.  There are turns where the school bus barely fits on the road.

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And if you were to miss one of the turns, you’d go over the side about 500 feet straight down.  And not a guardrail in sight.

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When we got to the final stop outbound, where one is confronted (on a good day) by the giant mountain looming right in front of you (30 miles away), our bus driver Jenny’s jaw dropped at the clarity of the vista.

EB1A0183“Only about 2% of visitors to the park get to the mountain like this,” she said.

On Facebook I statused our “last” look at Denali.  Well, I was wrong.  It turns out you an see Denali from points in Fairbanks, especially from a mountain ridge on the Parks Highway about 15 miles short of Fairbanks.

So we got to see Denali five days in a row, which makes us quite lucky.

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Stop the Train

Miles: 160

Wildlife: Swans; coyote; hooded merganser

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You could argue that Talkeetna is the most touristy town on our trip, but you’d get a good counter argument in favor of Leavenworth, Washington.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a tourist town with as much to do and see as Talkeetna.

EB1A9424Let’s start with the drive from Anchorage. It’s a straight line toward Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), and the views of the mountain are quite impressive. In our case, impressive right up until the time we turned off the Park Highway for Talkeetna. When we reached the overlook above town the mountain had found clouds.

That didn’t deter us from having fun. We walked around town and visited all the shops, then had a beer at the outlet restaurant for the Talkeetna Brewing Company. Very good IPA.

EB1A9447We finished off the day with a bike ride, a couple of miles out of town to a mountain-bike trail around a lake. Fortunately, we both made it around the like without incident.

The next morning I got up a little early and biked to the Susitna River, where there is a clear view of Denali. The range was visible, except for a bit of clouds at Denali’s summit. I waited for about an hour as my fingers got really cold, but the last cloud never cleared.

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Cooper.

But I was in the company of a kayaker, Cooper, who happened to be on a white-watering trip from Charlotte. We had a nice chat and compared photography techniques.

Around noon, we hopped aboard the Hurricane Turn, a flag-stop train that runs through Alaskan backcountry to the next highway crossing, then returns. The train is the only way the dozen or two families who live out there in the middle of near-artic nowhere have of getting into a town to buy supplies (or sell their books, they seem to be an eclectic bunch). The train also has become a tourist non-destination, thanks in large part to the efforts of Conductor Warren, who has been riding that rail for 40-plus years.

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Conductor Warren.

When you’re on that train, and you just missed a good photo shot, you just ask Conductor Warren to stop the train and back up, and voila, the train stops and backs up.   Not that you’d ever need to, because there’s going to be a better shot around the next curve.

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Like, shot after shot of Denali (formerly McKinley; not sure if the name change was effective when we were on the train).

EB1A9573We saw no bears or moose, which you could tell really bothered Conductor Warren. But the views of the mountain, and all the other mountains, were breathtaking.

The best coincidence was that the couple with whom I shared the most photographic moments were graduates of Wheeler High School, one of my own Alma Mater Marietta High School’s rivals.

Oh, and if you’re not on the train and you need a ride, you just wave a flag (or your arms), and the train will EB1A9731stop and pick you up.

We finished the day with a big plate of fish ‘n’ chips at the brew-pub’s restaurant, and wound up our stay the next morning with breakfast at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, possibly the biggest breakfast I’ve ever been served.

Next stop: Denali National Park.

Train on trestle at Hurricane Gulch.

Train on trestle at Hurricane Gulch.

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Sunset for Mount McKinley.

Blowhard Homer

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August 28

Miles:  Seward to Homer 165; Homer to Girdwood 190

Wildlife:  Swans; Eagles; sandhill cranes

D’oh.

We’ve had our D’oh moments on the trip, but fortunately none of them were at Homer.

EB1A9284The route from Seward to Homer was a good sampler of coastal Alaskan geography.  Coming out of town we drove through glacier-topped, black stone mountains.  When we turned onto the Sterling Highway, we passed through mountains that grew from evergreen-clad bottoms to treeless brown tops, I assume some kind of tundra.

At ground level, we were surrounded by lakes and rivers, especially the Kenai and Russian, crawling with fishermen.

Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik.

Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik.

After a stretch of scraggily low country, we reached Cook Inlet.  Across the water, about 50 miles away, rose Mount Redoubt, at over 10,000 the tallest volcano in the Aleutian range.  Active volcano.  It’s erupted in the last ten years.

A few miles after driving through Anchor Point, the farthest west you can drive in the United States without doing some serious portaging, we arrived at Homer, where we camped in the Driftwood Campground, probably the smallest campground we’ve experienced so far.  There weren’t more than a dozen campers parked on the site, which sits on a bluff just set back from the water’s edge, at the mouth of Kachemak Bay where it connects with what looks like the ocean.

EB1A9306The town is a little different from others we’ve visited in Alaska.  It’s much more spread out.  The shops are a little higher end.

Then there’s the Homer Spit, a little appendix-like projection that sticks out into the Bay toward the mountains and glaciers of the Kenai.

We biked to the spit.  It was a good, long ride, mostly on level ground, but the wind was really howling.  And in our face coming back.  The spit is almost a causeway with campgrounds, a few restaurants, and a lot of fishing tour headquarters.

We heard, and saw, several pairs of sandhill cranes.

Homer Spit

Homer Spit

While we were on the spit, we saw a few wind surfers (one hopes they had thermal wet suits), and one wind surfer on an over-sized skateboard who passed us on the bikeway.

homer3We did find the local brewery, Homer Brewing Company, where I had an ESB that wasn’t particularly bitter; they didn’t have an IPA on tap.

Two Sisters bakery makes great bread and desserts, and the best sticky nuns you could wish for for breakfast.

After two nights we headed back toward the “mainland,” where we hit some serious winds when we got back to the Turnagain Arm.

Before we got back to Anchorage, we turned east for a couple of blocks and stopped at Girdwood, where we decided to spend a couple of nights in a condo.

EB1A9352Girdwood is a ski resort for Anchorage.  The setting is beautiful, with the Turnagain Arm on the west, mountains and glaciers in the other three directions, and ski mountain Mount Alyeska rising up above the small town.  There’s no skiing right now.

This morning we rode our bikes down to the Arm, then this afternoon we went over to the ski resort and hiked up the mountain.  Ho, hum, another mountain climbed, 2000 feet ascent in 2.2 miles.  It was a great trail, with appropriate switchbacks and, where the trail was steep, steps cut into the rocks.

The reward for the hike was a free ride back down on the tram.

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Tomorrow we start edging toward Denali, where right now the weather is turning cold and snowy.

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President Obama is apparently tracking our trip, as he will be duplicating the steps we’ve taken when he

Hey, Trintech, name that lighthouse.

Hey, Trintech, name that lighthouse.

comes to the area in a couple of days.  Although I’d like to see the President, I think we’ll be fortunate to get out of Anchorage before he gets to town.  I hear he’s going to Exit Glacier; I wonder if he’ll try for the Harding Icefield.we

No Exit Glacier

There’s still an Exit Glacier outside of Seward, but judging by its rate of retreat, there won’t be one for a whole lot longer.

Exit Glacier

Exit Glacier

Due to our experience at O’Leary Peak in Anchorage, we were leery of any hike in Alaska that calls itself strenuous, and the hike to view the Harding Icefield above Exit Glacier was described as extremely strenuous.

EB1A9016The Park Rangers reinforced the impression, so we were convinced to hike to one of the two shorter destinations on the trail, either the first overlook, Marmot Meadows, or the second, more scenic view at the Cliff.

We hiked the mile to the lower view of the glacier as a leg stretcher.  It’s a really impressive view of a glacier at close hand, but fifty years ago we would have been touching the glacier at the overlook point.EB1A9058

Then we set off to climb to a better view of the glacier.

The view at Marmot Meadows was okay, but we were fresh, and the trail was not as sheer as we’d feared.  In fact it had a trail feature novel to Alaskan mountain trails:  switchbacks.  And steps had been cut into the rocks to help with the steeper sections.

The view at the cliffs was exceptional, and we could see dozens of hikers coming down the trail from the end.  Nowhere did the trail go straight up.

EB1A9200Unfortunately, we had not packed sufficient water to carry us four-and-a-half miles (each way) and 3500 feet up.  So we rested up.

And then, miraculously, we went up instead of down.  The views from the trail above the Cliff were spectacular.  It turned out the trail was longer, and somewhat steeper, than it had appeared, but we pressed on.

Finally, after three and a half hours, we reached the upper terminus of the trail, where we could see hundreds of acres of ice stretching to the far peaks.

We were quite proud of ourselves when we reached the ground.  Deservedly so, I think.

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