Monday, May 21, 2012

Home Again; Alaska Highway Checked Off Bucket List

After 25 days on the road our chalet on wheels has come to rest at our Bellevue home. It was a 5000 mile journey touching two states and two Canadian provinces with six border crossings. The weather was a bit cooler than we’d planned and some parks were not open for the season but, on the other hand, it kept the bugs and crowds down.
Dawson Creek was the official end of the Alaska Highway making the next three days of the trip a bit anti-climatic. However, the last 800 miles through spectacular southern British Columbia was worth the trip. 
The Outdoor Pools at Harrison

As a reward for “roughing it” we stopped at Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa for the last night on the road. The resort is a classic and, in my mind, for “old people” who want to bath in mineral waters. I was wrong. Several new wings have been tastefully added to the original hotel and the place was hopping with families enjoying Canada’s first three day weekend of the summer season (Victoria Day.)
The View from the Hotel

With three outdoor and two indoor pools (including adult only offerings) we soaked away the grit and grime of four weeks on the dusty trail before wandering into the small town for dinner. First stop was highly rated Morgan’s Bistro. The food may be good but the flustered lady in charge was in a bit of a snit and decreed that, “we are not seating anyone else at this time.”
So it was down the street to the Black Forest Steak and Schnitzel for a bit of German food. We had an excellent meal and were able to sit outside with a view of Harrison Lake, just across the narrow road.
I’m not a fan of hotel breakfast buffets so the next morning we escaped to a small local place that was just right. Cookin’ Kim’s Country CafĂ© had all the breakfast standards and then some.
It was then time to point the car south, into the Washington rain for the last leg of the trip.
Now there is nothing left but the memories and a chance to reflect on the trip—what went per plan, what would be do different and so on. That reflection can await for another day. For now it’s sort mail, get organized and get back to the normal stuff of home. We shall see how quickly we can adjust.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Central British Columbia; A Changing Face

Mile "0" Alaska Highway
Roadside Wildlife
Northern British Columbia has been a surprise. Mining, oil and gas generation are big things up here and the major towns we’ve seen the past few days—Fort Nelson, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek are all engaged in those heavy industries. Given the demand for energy in North America these local economies seem to be perking along strongly.
Being more familiar with Southern B.C. I expected a more temperate climate but was reminded by a local that they lie as far north as Edmonton Alberta and Edmonton has some nasty winters. But it’s spring now and growing more pleasant each day.
Wildlife was still snoozing when we passed through Alaska. It is abundant here in B.C. bears, bison, stone sheep, caribou, elk and even porcupines can be found roadside. I’m not sure what we will do with all the photos.

Services Far Apart—Gas When You Can
Seniors are familiar with the adage, never pass up a rest room. On the Yukon/north B.C. portion of the Alaska Highway all drivers should adhere to the adage, never pass up a gas station. Station are few and far apart. Twice, in the last two days, the “distance to empty” number of my car computer indicated I would not get where I intended to go. Gas stops listed in Mile Post were either not open for the season or will never open again. Each time we were rescued by a gas pump we didn’t anticipate but the experience was enough to get our attention and be thankful we were not driving a class A, 6 mile to the gallon motor home.
Some of the big pickups pulling 5th wheel trailers have extra gas cans tucked in the bed of their trucks. I now understand why. But we have only seen one vehicle at the side of the road pouring gas into what I assume was an out-of-gas camper.

One Last Snow Storm
Snowy Morning at Purden Park
We started out this trip with cold and snowy nights. Now it’s mid-May and we should be done with all that. Not true. Last night at Purden Lake Provincial Park, east of Prince George, we went to bed under clear skies and woke up with a dusting of wet snow. There must be a message here but I’m not sure what it is.

Central B.C.: Dawson City to Prince George to Kamloops

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Where is Everyone Going on the Alaska Highway

          The season has begun on the Alaska Highway. The first part of May we had Alaska to ourselves. One or two RV’s would share the campgrounds with us. Now the big rigs are heading north and the reasons for travel vary.
A Florida couple picked up a new camper in Iowa that is destined for an Alaska camper rental agency. The rental company offers a smoking deal to people that will pick up a new campers and drive it north. They plan to spend three weeks wandering and then deliver a slightly used camper to the rental agency. Everyone wins.
A North Carolina couple is hauling their 5th wheel trailer to Moose Pass, near Seward. They found a summer job caring for three vacation rentals some guy in Anchorage owns. They get a place to park, modest salary and a chance to spend the summer in Alaska. They say there are all sorts of web sites where such jobs are listed.
A Texas couple was heading to Dyea, near Skagway to become campground hosts. Same deal—light work, check people in, do maintenance and spend the summer up north. The irony was, she had no idea where Dyea was. It just sounded like a good idea. 
We met a guy from Vernon, B.C. who is going to work at a gold mine near Dawson City for the summer. Yes, they are still mining gold at Dawson Creek.
The strangest was a young man with a German Sheppard puppy, heading to Valdez to build a log home for some relative. He was driving an old Mercedes with bald tires and wasn’t sure where he was. After a brief discussion I concluded the dog was the smartest of the two.
A German couple was headed north for the third time in a four wheel drive pickup with camper. They will spend most of the summer and favor the back/dirt roads where the crowds (for good reason) are not an issue. When winter comes they will park their rig in Vancouver and return to the motherland.
We have also seen couples from such places as New Zealand, Australia and Spain that have come on over, rented a rig and launched an Alaskan adventure.
This is just a sample. As the season matures there will be more and more, just plain tourists but, for now, the travelers are an interesting mix.

Return of the Night: Up north we enjoyed long daylight hours (hours between sunrise and sunset.) Now, as we head south, darkness has returned. By way of comparison, today Fairbanks will have 18hr 40min of daylight, Dawson Creek 16hr 25min and Bellevue WA just 15hr 10 min. It is noticable. We had to dig out our flashlights in case we needed to go out after dark!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

American Couple Survives Two Days Without Internet Access

Dawson Creek—An American couple, Kathy and Steve Dennis, are recovering here after two days on the Alaska Highway without internet access. Authorities doubt they will suffer any long term effects from the ordeal.
A distraught Dennis tries to connect.

“We were OK in Watson Lake (Yukon),” Mr. Dennis reported. “It was a slow connection but serviceable. The problems began at Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park.”
The hot springs have been attracting visitors since fur trappers discovered the mineral waters in the last century. They were also popular with crews building the Alaska Highway but, even today, services are limited and do not include power or internet access.
“It’s a beautiful park,” added Mrs. Dennis. “A long boardwalk takes you to the natural pools. It was wonderful, but no internet service was available. No cell service either, for that matter."
The travelers escaped those conditions and headed further south. They were teased with wifi at the Toad River Lodge but were compelled to move on before they could blog.
Internet connections were plentiful in bustling Fort Nelson but schedule forced them on to the “wifi unavailable” Sikanni River RV site.
“I can’t tell you how stressful it’s been having to read and talk to each other for two days,” Dennis said.
Following a brief recovery here in Dawson Creek the couple will continue to Prince George and Kamloops where they anticipate better coverage.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Yukon Towns Underwhelm

     With the exception of bustling Whitehorse, the Yukon towns of the Alaska Highway are underwhelming. The people are gracious and friendly but the towns themselves reflect their heritage—stopping points on a road to somewhere else. Haines Junction, Teslin and Watson Lake present a bleak face to the traveler passing though.
Watson Lakes Claim to Fame
The "GI" signs that started it all
     It was painfully apparent when we were looking for a Saturday evening RV park/ The Teslin park was a wide open lot next to a lake. In hindsight it was the best we were to see. Wanting to cover more ground we pressed on for Rancheria, which was described as a charming roadhouse dating back to the 1940’s with restaurant and RV park. The RV park wasn’t open and the roadhouse itself badly needed pick up. It wasn’t just old. It was messy.
     Next stop, a road junction near Watson Lake. Two parks there looked good on paper. The first was closed. The second was a wide open field behind a gas station with rest rooms of questionable quality. On to Watson Lake, where three parks looked good.
     The newest and best, per our guide, was, guess what—a gravel lot behind a service station. But someone had run over their transformer and there was no power. With temperatures at 40ish nightly, electric heat is nice!
     Number two was a gravel lot on a small lake. Later in the season bugs might be an issue but not now, with ice still clinging to the lake edge. It was a possibility but we hoped for a more wooded home for the night so headed to park number three with “pads separated by small trees.”
     Number three was not open for the season.
Any type of sign will do.
     So it was back to gravel lot number two which turned out to be ok. The facilities were great, wifi strong and neighbors quiet. Life is good in the RV park.

Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon Territory: In 1942, a soldier working on the Alaska Highway installed a sign showing the distance to his home town. Others added signs to the post. Now the Watson Lake Sign Post Forest boast signs from all over the world, left by travelers passing through. Over 70,000 signs are claimed and more are added daily. It is a sure photo stop for anyone heading up the Alcan.
Saturday Travel: Haines Junction, Whitehorse, Teslin, Watson Lake 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mile Posts and Frost Heaves

 Mile Posts

Mile "0" 1947

Driving non-interstate highways in the lower 48 I often see the little green mile post signs beside the road with a number indicating how many miles I am from somewhere. But I rarely pay much attention to them. Up north it’s different. With the great expanses of land and long distances between communities, the mile posts provide important gauges to locate points of interest.
Perhaps it all started with the Alaska Highway. Starting at mile 0, in Dawson City, B. C, points along the way were identified by mile posts, ending with mile post 1422 in Delta Junction, Alaska. For example, a certain bridge might be located at mile post 330 and so on. It gave the road builders a point of reference and the mile post concept stuck.

Early copy of Milepost
Current Milepost
The old dog sled routes might have used the same system, with less precision.
Now mile posts are a way of life; an address system where no addresses exist. They are in use on all the major roads (and there aren’t that many) in Alaska. A town will be located at mile post 440. A gas station at mile post 665, and so on.

Delta Junction, End of the Road
Travelers in Alaska often carry the bible of Alaska travelers, The Milepost. An annual publication in its 65th printing it chronicles all the major roads, mile by mile, listing services and sights to see along the way. When gas stations, for example, are widely spaced, The Milepost can provide guidance for fill up. With nearly 800 pages it is packed with facts, can be used as a door stop and, if you are trapped in the wild, makes an excellent fire starter.
After three weeks on the road, ours is beginning to show its age but it’s still serviceable and, with its guidance, we haven’t needed to start any fires.

Frost Heaves
In basic science class we learned that objects expand when hot and shrink when cold (aka, the shrinkage factor.) Water is an exception. It expands when frozen. That is bad news for road builders of the north when the water in question is beneath a road. The result is a “frost heave” or big bump in the road.
Winter plays havoc on roads in the north and no place more than the road from Beaver Creek to Haines Junction in the Yukon Territory. The ice forces the road up, breaking the asphalt and making driving a challenge. It seems that, after 70 years, they still haven’t solved the "heave" problem on the Alcan. Mother Nature is a clever girl.
When the ground is still frozen they can’t make repairs so the best the road crew can do is place fluorescent flags on little stakes where the damage is the worst. When you see those flags, caution is advised, particularly if you are pulling a small trailer. Getting “air” with a camp trailer is not a good thing.  

Friday: Tok to Haines Junction
click to enlarge

Friday, May 11, 2012

Down the Alcan; Fairbanks to Tok

One goal of this trip north was to travel the Alaska, or Alcan, Highway. Thursday we started the trek in earnest. A few weeks ago we did a short stretch northbound, Haines Junction to Tok, but we are not going to count that. So, starting in Fairbanks, we headed for the south terminus of the Alcan in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Technically the Alcan, constructed in 1942, begins 100 miles south of Fairbanks in Delta Junction but we won’t be technical.

I could give you a history of the road but that’s been written. You can click HERE to read one account. I will limit my observations to our experience on the road. Since much of the road is just miles and miles of miles and miles surrounded by an ever changing and incredible landscape there isn’t much to tell. It has to be experienced.

Then, 1942

Now, 2012
The people that live in splendid isolation along the road amaze me. In the summer, with the good weather, crowds of travelers head up and down the road, served by restaurants, gas stations and stores of all types. For the other nine months it is relatively quiet. For the five months of winter much of the north portion is held in an icy grip. While some escape to warmer climates many remain and cope.
We stopped in Delta Junction to sample a buffalo burger at a renowned local drive in. It was cold and windy but the covered patio area was alive with kids. I pulled in and was greeted by the owner. “Sorry, we’re not open until May 18th. I’m here for the local school kids who are coming by for a special ice cream cone treat.”
An ice cream cone with the wind blowing and the temperature struggling to reach 45! He then proceeded to make complimentary cones for us pointing out that the ice cream came fresh from a local dairy. And then the next group of parka clad students arrived.
When you live in this country you figure how to get by.

Thursday: Fairbanks to Tok

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Alaska, Where Old Trucks Go to Die

On a per capita basis I believe Alaska has more dead and dying trucks than any state in the union. Don't misunderstand me. They have a lot of macho, mondo, tricked out trucks as well. In fact, it appears Alaskans love their trucks, the bigger and bolder the better. But, as you leave the bigger towns and look down the driveways and side roads in the open country you will see faithful pickups in their death throes.
When you think about it, it makes sense. They use their trucks for hunting, camping, hauling fish, pulling trailers—all the stuff trucks are designed to do but never do in big cities in the lower 48. As they age they gather dents and rust spots and, eventually, are passed on to a new owner who can’t afford the big new bruisers.
In Seattle old trucks may lead a similar lifestyle, with a few mall trips thrown in. But in the end they drift off to a salvage yard, are gently crushed into a pancake form and shipped to a nearby steel mill. From the mill they will reincarnate as steel beams and rebar for new buildings in the area.
Not so in Alaska. First, they have lots of places to park them to rust away up here. It’s a big place. Second, every truck in Alaska has been driven 2200 miles up the Alcan or shipped there. No one is going to spend good money to drive or ship them back so they can die near a steel mill. So they are parked and slowly return to the soil as an oxide of iron.
To paraphrase a scripture, for rust thou art and unto rust shall thou return.
Rust is a beautiful thing.

The End of the Road

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fairbanks; A Big Little Town on the Chena River

Creamers Field Wetlands in Winter
We dropped from the Alaska Range into the interior of Alaska on our way to Fairbanks. It is a wonderfully gritty little town with aspirations of being a bigger town. Compared to Anchorage, Fairbanks is in another world with colder colds, and hotter hots—generally a more extreme climate.
We have been trying to paint a picture of our travels that suggests we are really roughing it, rubbing sticks together to start fires and foraging for food in the wild. Well, actually it hasn’t been that bad and today, I must confess, we are living quite well. We arrived in Fairbanks and stopped at a respected RV park on the Chena River, which bisects town. Most parks, even if they were not fully open, have let us hook to power and spend the night. Not here. The owner made it clear she was not open until May 17th and we should scram, thank you very much.
We thought about the situation for seven seconds and checked into a wonderful little motel with pillow top beds and free breakfast. My how quick we gave up living the wilds. Then for dinner, at the suggestion of a shop keeper, we traveled five miles into the nearby hills for a wonderful Italian dinner at The Vallata. It was not hardtack and venison. This was a five star place for a denim clad crowd.
We have done the museums and quilt shops of Fairbanks and plan to head down the Alcan at sunrise—or sometime after sunrise. We shall see.

Phyllis in Fairbanks
The Church were Phyllis was wed, June 1940

In June of 1940 Kathy’s mother, 20 year old Phyllis Feroe, stepped off of an Army transport in Seward and into another world. Born and raised in Seattle she had previously traveled no further than California. Now she was in Alaska Territory, alone, on her way to meet her fiancĂ©, Army Lt. Marvin Walseth, and be married.
A friend of Marvin’s met her at the dock and flew her to Anchorage, for the night. It was her first small plane ride. The next day, Wednesday, she flew on to Fairbanks where she met Marvin and was put up with two girls who shared an apartment in his building. Thursday the three women gathered flowers and decorated the Presbyterian Church for the wedding. On Friday they were married.
Interior of the Church

The next 18 months were a whirlwind of activity for the young bride. She set up house first in his apartment and later in new quarters at Ladd Field (now Fort Wainwright). She taught music, led a Girl Scout troop, took classes at U. of Alaska, directed a choir in one church, sang in a choir in another, took a river boat trip down the Tanana River and entertained visiting officers who her husband would bring home with little notice.
That life ended abruptly. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, dependents were sent “outside” to Seattle and, six months later Marvin was killed on a mission in his B-17 bomber over the Aleutian Islands. A story of his flying career can be found at Old Seventy.  

Phyllis and her husband on a river trip.

In 2002 Kathy and Steve escorted her folks, Phyllis and Don, back to Alaska visiting Fairbanks, Anchorage and Seward. We even found an old friend of Phyllis’ from the Fairbanks era. It was a bittersweet trip but offered an element of closure to both of them as Alaska had played such an important part of their young lives.

Talkeetna to Denali Park; McKinley Views All the Way

Mt McKinley in the cloud
            With a Talkeetna Roadhouse breakfast under our belts we headed for the Parks Highway and our next stop, Denali National Park. Denali is anchored by 20,000 foot Mt. McKinley, which is the target of hundreds of “wanna be” climbers each year. McKinley may be the highest but it is surrounded by other mountains of the Alaska Range that present an incredible vista you as you head north. Alaska has no shortage of impressive mountain peaks.
Since McKinley weather is notoriously fickle we stop at every opportunity to take “just one more picture” in case the clouds beat us to the park. We now have a goodly supply of photos of the big mountain.
Denali Park is special since most is preserved as wilderness; a single 90 mile road carves into the park and traffic is very restricted. During the summer season most guests must leave their cars outside and enter the park on a school bus for the park tour. We are the lucky ones. The buses are not running yet and visitors are scarce so we are permitted to drive 30 miles into the park. Having ridden the bus on a previous visit we really appreciated that opportunity.Views are expansive—though not of the cloud covered mountain. We are told of bears, caribou, wolves and sheep that have been seen from the road by visitors that day. We had to settle for a single moose visible only with good binoculars. But the views are worth the trip.
Caribou spotted outside of the park
Like so many places we’ve visited, the tourist facilities are just waking up. Hotels, shops and restaurants that will be crowded with cruise ship passengers in a few weeks are, like the bears of Denali, slowly coming out of hibernation.
While some park facilities are open year around, to facilitate winter camping, most businesses abandon the place. Average January temperatures of -7 degrees tend to drive summer workers to warmer climates.
Today the trek north continues with stops in Healy, Nanana and Fairbanks, the gritty “capital” of the interior

Flashback, a story of Healy Alaska, near Denali Park: The winter of 1941 my mother-in-law and her husband, Lt. Marvin Walseth, were stationed at Ladd Field, Fairbanks, Alaska. Walseth, an Army Air Corp pilot, shared this story in a letter to his father.

One winter morning Walseth’s commander and friend, Major Dale Gaffney, left Ladd in a single seat fighter plane for a 300 mile flight to Anchorage. His route would take him over a pass in the Alaska Range just south of the current Denali Park. As he approached the pass clouds descended and he decided to land while he could still see. The nearest airfield was at Healy, just north of the current Denali Park entrance.

Gaffney made a pass over the field to see if it was plowed. Seeing two tracks on the runway he concluded that someone had successfully landed before him so he came around, lowered his wheels and settled in. The next thing he recalled was being upside down, hanging from his shoulder harness in four feet of snow.

Gaffney's plane at Healy; Wheels and flaps down!
It seems the tracks he saw were made by snowshoers who had walked down the snow covered runway that morning, not another plane. He was rescued from his inverted and badly damaged plane with a sore back and injured pride.

The incident didn’t seem to impact his career. Gaffney, later promoted to General, managed the transfer of thousands of “lend-lease” planes to our Russian allies through Ladd Field.

You can read about Lt. Walseth’s all too short flying career at “Old Seventy.”

Tech Challenges: Our Chalet comes equipped with a power cord and four interior outlets. That should be fine, right? Not in the modern era. Each evening we have a need to plug in and/or recharge, a heater, laptop, two Kindles, two mp3 players, two phones, and iPad and batteries for two cameras. Eleven demands for four outlets. Who says this isn’t roughing it?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Talkeetna; Old Alaska at its Best

Talkeetna Alaska is a living museum of small town Alaska. On a spur road, 14 miles from the Parks Highway (which links Anchorage and Fairbanks via Denali Park,) it is worth the detour. This was our second visit to the town and both times it was sunny and Mt. McKinley was in view. We are told only about 30% of the visitors ever see the mountain due to weather. How lucky are we?
Any town with a cat for a mayor must be special and Talkeetna is special. Mayor Stubbs was duly elected by the locals and watches over town from any warm spot he choses.
The snow is nearly gone but the winter road sand remains. It’s difficult to discern the paved streets (the highway in and a few in town) from the rest. Main street looks like a Hollywood set though the old looking log buildings are truly old. There is Nagley’s store, in a log building that has been moved several times. The Fairview Inn is old and I’m confident could not survive a move. But it offers a “fair” view of Mt McKinley on the outside and an interesting view of the local bar patrons on the inside.
Mayor Stubbs the Cat

Mayor's home and leading emporium

Fans of the TV series “Northern Exposure” would feel at home here as Talkeetna was the inspiration for the series that involved a New York doctor sent to a small Alaska town, a inn run by a couple of widely different ages, a locally owned radio station and a lady pilot. While the series was filmed in Roslyn Washington the characters came from the annals of Talkeetna life. For an interesting description of the town visit Australian Travel.

The Fairview Inn on the Outside

The Fairview Inn on the Inside

          The nearby airfield is busy, particularly in the summer, with “flightseeing” trips and staging climbers on Mt. McKinley for their climbs to the top. Most climbing parties begin their trek being airlifted to a mountain glacier, beginning their two week accent from there. Though it’s early May, according the park service office, there are already 110 climbers on the mountain. It’s a big place.
Anchorage is a nice urban place. But Talkeetna represents the Alaska we really enjoy.

The dilemma, to eat in or out: We are equipped and stocked to eat most of our meals at our campsite. But we have found that isolates us from the locals and their stories of life in Alaska or life in general. In Mendeltna and Kodiak our servers were most enjoyable companions. Monday, in Anchorage, we shared a table with an elder from a Bristol Bay tribe who was full of fishing and freighting stories we would not have heard elsewhere. So we will continue to mix eating in with eating local when a place of interest presents itself.

In Talkeetna, based on the recommendation of locals, we chose “The Roadhouse” for breakfast. Its “Roadhouse Special,” a family style platter heaped with eggs, potatoes, meat and bread, comes with a five star rating. The cinnamon rolls and sourdough pancakes are also highly rated but I settled for the sourdoughs and they were exceptional. As for meeting people, we shared a “family style table” with two men who were in town for “bush flying” lessons. Both were experienced pilots but were in Talkeetna to learn how to land on river bars and glaciers. Most interesting!

On a sad note: A decade ago we arrived in town with friends and they and my wife opted for a flightseeing trip to Mt. McKinley. I opted for the bar at the Fairview Inn, but that’s another story. They selected an air service run by two women with the motto, "Two Babes and a Bird." Pilot Kelly gave them an incredible ride which included landing at the climbing base camp on a glacier. Sadly, on this trip, we learned that Kelly later lost her life in a flying accident near the mountain.