Cruisin’ the Cassiar

Aug. 25-27, 2012

We set out from Whitehorse heading back eastward on the Alaskan Highway. As there really wasn’t any reason to stay in Watson Lake again, we started our journey down the Cassiar Highway. The Cassiar goes south through British Columbia on the western side of the Canadian Rockies. It’s a less travelled route but has been recommended to us multiple times on this trip.

We end up pulling in to camp at Boya Lake Provincial park about an hour south on the highway. It’s a little late, but we still manage to get in a small walk/hike from the campground to an old beaver dam.

Some scenery shots from the days drive.

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And a shot of Boya Lake. You can’t really tell from this picture, but the lake was remarkably clear.

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The next day we continued south on the Cassiar. There isn’t much in the way of civilization along the way, but one of the few places to stop is Jade City. Apparently, most of the worlds Jade comes from the mines in this area. Jade City, which is really less of a city and more like three four buildings along the highway, is there so you can can purchase your jade mine-direct.

This is “Jade City”. Most of those giant boulders are actually various forms of jade.

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On the outside there is a guy is constantly cutting up large pieces of jade into smaller pieces which you can buy by the pound in an unpolished state.

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There is also a more traditional store where you can buy just about anything you want made of jade. The most interesting thing about the jade they sell is that although it is all mined right here, they ship everything over to China to be carved into something, and they ship it back to sell in the store. Not too surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be any real bargains on jade in the store.

After overdosing on jade we continue south for what turns out to be a very scenic ride; this part of British Columbia really is a picturesque place. Here are a few shots from one of our rest stops.

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Toward the south end of the Cassiar we took a detour west to visit the towns of Stewart and Hyder. The road in passes right by the end of bear glacier.

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Stewart and Hyder are small neighboring coastal towns which happen to be in two different countries. Stewart is in Canada while Hyder is actually in Alaska. Even though Hyder is in Alaska, you can’t drive to it from any other place but Stewart. The US doesn’t even bother to man a customs/border station here, although Canada does.

The next day we headed to Fish Creek in Hyder for a chance to see more bears. The creek is a spawning site for salmon and thus a buffet for the bears. Although we see lots of fish spawning, and lots of dead post-spawn fish, the bears are in short supply.

This is fish creek, plenty of salmon, but no bears.

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While the bears are away, the birds get to play.

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After about an hour waiting we give up and head out to the Salmon Glacier. In order to get to Salmon Glacier you must drive another 16 miles or so up a dirt/gravel road which is mainly used to service the many and various mines operating in the area. Although the ride is not the most pleasant, the viewpoint for the glacier at the end turns out to be worth the effort. Not only do we get an awesome view of the glacier but we get to meet Keith “Bear Man” Scott, who appears to be camping at the viewpoint and is somewhat of a local legend and bear photographer.

Here is Reen (and Will in the background) in front of the Salmon Glacier.

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This was, and will be again, Summit Lake. Every year a lake forms here above the edge of the glacier. And every year in late summer, the lake breaks through the ice dam and completely empties under the glacier into the Salmon river, raising the river level 4 or 5 feet for several days! Unfortunately we are a little late and the lake is already empty. It would be in the lower left of this picture, where all that collapsed glacier is.

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We didn’t do much else in Stewart other than walk around the town and eat some ice cream. The most interesting thing in town was the toaster museum, a building packed full of toasters tracing back as far as toasters go. Alas, all we got was views through the windows as we learned that the toaster museum has been closed for 3 years due to the lack of staff. Bummer.

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It Gets Dark in Whitehorse

Aug. 23-24, 2012

We’re back heading for our second visit to Whitehorse. On the road in we stop at yet another place on the highway claiming to have “world famous” cinnamon rolls. I’m not sure how famous they are but they were damn big, at least 10 inches across. Unfortunately, they were not nearly fresh enough and the gentleman running the establishment was not one of the more friendly people we’ve met on this trip. I guess its getting late in the season and everyone is starting to look forward to the quieter winter season.

This time we elect to stay at a different RV park, the Hill Country RV Park. Its a little closer to town and the facilities are a little more convenient than the last park we stayed at.

They have a nice laundry room and clean showers which are much appreciated. They also have wi-fi internet access which  actually works, not a very common occurrence  With all our smart phones crippled by ridiculous out of country data rates, its our only link to the outside world.

We did most of the things we were interested in here on our last visit, so most of our time is spent shopping for supplies as this is the last significant town for a while. We do manage to have a nice dinner at a local pub called the “Dirty Northern”.

Reen and I also revisited the 4 km walking trail that goes by the fish ladder and the hydro plant. Missed out on the fish again. Its about the right time here, but they get so few fish this far up the river, you need to be pretty lucky to see one.

Tomorrow we head back down the Alaska Highway toward Watson Lake. After that the plan is head south on the Cassiar highway from there and see some more of British Columbia.

We had hoped to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis before we got too far south but its looking less and less likely. While checking the sky before bed last night I noticed something odd, it was actually dark and there were visible stars. Up until just recently, its been normal to go to bed with the skies still light. But now we’re once again south enough to realize that summer is coming to a close.

Carmacks and Carry Max

Its time to leave Dawson City and head back to Whitehorse. It would make for a really long day so we decide to take 2 days for the drive. The first day gets us most of the way to the small town of Carmacks. The town is named after George Carmacks who is partially credited with discovering the gold near Dawson City.

Since there is not much to the town we decide to stay at another Yukon government campground about 10 miles out. These campgrounds tend to be nice, inexpensive and offer free firewood. This one is no different.

Before heading to the campground we stopped at the Five Fingers Rapids overlook on the Yukon river. This is an area of the river where large rock islands divide up the river. It was a very dangerous point of passage for the riverboats back in the day.

There is a trail which leads down from the overlook to a closer view of the river. The first part of the trail requires going down about 200 wooden steps. Max was along for the trip and old, nearly blind dogs don’t do so well on wooden steps so Brian shows what a devoted dog owner he is by carrying Max down all 200 stairs. Despite his normal opposition to being carried, Max doesn’t look like he is minding this trip, does he.

This is the life!

Max had no problems on the rest of the trail, and much to Brian’s relief, even managed to climb up the stairs on his own. Way to go Max!

This is the main passage used by the riverboats. Its not as dangerous as it once was due to some blasting of the rocks. Before the blasting there were actually steel cables permanently anchored to the rock that the boats could use to control their path. There doesn’t seem to be any remaining remnants that we can see.

This shows most of the five fingers rapids.

Once you’re through its pretty smooth sailing.

Once back to camp we settle in for the tradition campground evening, dinner cooked on the grill, a big campfire, and a smores-fest before heading off to bed.

Dawson City

Aug. 19-21, 2012

We wake up to find out that much of the campground has emptied out. Apparently, after two days of drunken debauchery, most of the Yukonites, Yukonians, or whatever they are called decided to pack it in early. While they were somewhat entertaining, and remarkably friendly for being just this side of passed out, we’re not that upset to see the crowds dwindle and it’s a good sign that better (i.e. with electricity) accommodations would be available in Dawson City proper.

In order to get to Dawson City from the west, we must take a ferry over the Yukon river. The ferry is free and runs 24 hours, so the only inconvenience is waiting our turn as the ferry only holds about 10 cars. It’s a little busy this morning and they only put one RV on at a time so we spend a little less than an hour waiting and watching the ferry. Once onboard the ride is only a couple of minutes.

There has apparently been talk of a bridge for more years than anyone can remember, but nothing ever comes of it. For most of the year, the river is frozen and the locals just drive over the ice to get from side to side. So there’s no big rush to spend lots of money for the three months of tourist season.

Here’s Brian and Will loading onto the ferry.

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And here they are mid river.

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Here we are mid river, with a good shot of the overall crossing.

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Just about to come ashore.

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We end up at a campground on the other side of Dawson City which is built upon old dredge mining tailings. We come to learn that its run by a cranky old sort who doesn’t seem to be too concerned by the fact that the advertised wi-fi, cable tv, and tire repair services are in various states of “not available”. We spend a lot of time bonding with other campers over the constantly failing wi-fi. It was so bad, that at one point Brian was driven to put on his “mean face” and yell at the poor girl behind the desk until she reset the wi-fi router. You don’t want to get between Brian and the inter-webs, trust me.

Dawson City was born of the gold rush and was once the capital of the Yukon, an honor which now belongs to Whitehorse. They have tried to maintain that gold rush era feel to the town. Its somewhat successful, but we learn from a long time resident while waiting for the ferry, that many of the real old buildings have been knocked down and facsimiles built in their place.

This shot pretty much covers most of the downtown business area. The bright blue buildings are usually government buildings.

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Our first night in town we take in the show at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, which claims to be the oldest gambling establishment in the Yukon. That’s the current Gertie on the left. She did most of the singing and was actually pretty good. She was joined by a fella for a few songs. He was pulled from the audience by Gertie, but he actually turned out to have been a plant and part of the show. There were also the required dancing girls, who come on between songs and whose act consisted mainly of pulling up their dresses and yelling Wooo! I think Reen has found her job for next summer. In the picture below some actual audience members are being made to perform in a tongue twister competition. The tall German fellow on the left won and as his prize he got to remove one of the girls garter belts anyway he wanted. You’ll have to guess how he did it. This is a PG rated blog after all.

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The next day we did the tourist thing. First stop was Dredge #4, an old gold dredge barge that was recovered and restored by Canada Parks. This dredge had a tour associated with it so we got to go inside and see some of the guts.

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The operation is really pretty simple as indicated in this helpful diagram.

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This is the giant rotating sieve in the center which separates the gold bearing sands from most everything else.

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This is what the inside of the sieve looks like. That big pipe on top is constantly spraying water on everything.

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The good stuff which passes through the sieve falls into a series of trays which act like big sluice boxes and eventually catch the gold and some black sand in burlap cloth. Periodically, some company men would show up, and they would shut down the rig so they could clean out the burlap and haul away the gold sands. The final separation of the gold would then be done manually by a few men offsite. Other than when the gold was collected, the dredge ran continuously throughout the summer and only required a handful of poorly paid men to run. The worst part was apparently the noise, as we’re told the noise could literally be heard for miles in every direction.

These are the controls for everything on the dredge. All the machinery is controlled manually by rods and levers tied to these hand levers.

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This is the giant motor that ran the dredge, I think it was about 300hp. They would generate power somewhere else and run lines to the dredge from the shore.

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This shot gives an idea of what things look like after the dredge does its business. It leaves behind huge piles of gravel that look like giant drunk moles have been tunneling all over the place. This is just a small taste, not much farther away from town it looks like this for miles.

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Later in the day we watch some movies in the visitor center and go to the Dawson City museum. The museum is better than expected and they put a little twist on their displays. Many of the displays are scenes that include people. And rather than use generic manikins, they enhance theirs by using molds of local resident’s faces and hands to make things more realistic. Another interesting exhibit they have is a glimpse into their full collection. Most museums have many times more artifacts than they can display that the public never gets to see. This exhibit showcased a large collection of items not typically seen in the manner in which they would typically be stored, basically a big closet full of shelves just packed with artifacts.

The rest of the day is spent touring the town on foot. Dawson City was once home to famous writers Jack London and Robert Service. This cabin is a replica, made with half the original logs, of Jack London’s cabin and food storage hut.

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And this is Robert Service’s cabin.

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There are other original buildings in town in various states of disrepair. These are part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Fort Herchemer. The first was originally officer’s quarters and the second a jail.

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An old church. I was not leaning when I took this picture, the building really is leaning that far. I’m not sure they will get the money to save this one before it falls.

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More buildings that have seen better days.

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This is what most of the downtown looks like, more modern buildings with that old-tyme feeling. And all the sidewalks are still wood.

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We notice a few other interesting things while walking around the town. I was particularly struck by the craftsmanship in this woodpile.

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And apparently I wasn’t the only one, because this woodpile is so good it has won an award!

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Before calling it a day we drive up to the top of Midnight dome for some great views of the entire area. I believe that is the Yukon river.

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Our last day in town is Tuesday, the first business day after the big holiday weekend. This means we can finally get our flat tire looked at, which ends up taking all day. It seems there were a lot of people with tire problems this weekend. Turns out the tire is too damaged to repair, but luckily they have our size in stock and we wont have to travel tomorrow without a spare for the trailer.

Reen takes advantage of our down time to catch up on her quilting projects which have been falling behind schedule.

Top of the World

Aug. 18, 2012

We’re on the road from Chicken Alaska to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory of Canada via the Top of the World Highway. Well, highway might be a bit if a stretch as most of it, about 100 miles or so, are gravel and dirt. But if you want to drive from Alaska to Canada this is the only alternative to the Alaska highway. And the views are supposed to be worth it.

On the way out of Chicken, while still in Alaska, the road parallels a river for a while, and every so often you will see some people mining for gold. Brian takes this as a sign and pulls off to the side of the road at a completely inappropriate spot to try his hand.

Unfortunately, he knows nothing about panning for gold and is using the lid from a 5 gallon bucket in lieu of an actual gold pan. I guess he figured anything round would do. Not surprisingly, he comes up empty.

The drive is very picturesque, although the clouds move in as the day moves on putting a damper on the scenery. This is an early shot of the river outside Chicken.

Here are some vista shots and the US side of the border.

And here’s one from the Canada side. That’s Brian and Will driving down the road ahead.

What separates these? Not much. This is what a border crossing station looks like on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. It’s the only buildings for quite a ways in either direction.

We had more tire problems on this trip. This makes two gravel punctures on the trailer. I guess maybe I should have put new tires on before the trip. Doh!

Hoping to avoid changing the tire on the road, I try using some tire sealant, but that proves ineffective and we end up having to put on the spare a few miles further down the road. The rest of the tires hold up for the remaining trip into Dawson City.

We arrive in Dawson City on the late side and it turns out it’s a holiday weekend for the Yukon, and Dawson City is full up with revelers, but we manage to find a few spots at the Yukon government campground just over the river from Dawson City. Tomorrow is Sunday, and hopefully there will be some spots open at the commercial campgrounds in Dawson City.

Buck, Buck, Buck, B’Gawk – Chickenapalooza

Our last stop in Alaska is the lovely “town” of Chicken. As the story goes, a bunch of miners got together to form the town and wanted to name it Ptarmigan (a common bird of the area). However, turns out none of the miners knew how to spell Ptarmigan, so they settled on Chicken, since ptarmigans look a little like small chickens I guess. Well that’s the story anyway. Only about 2 dozen people actually live here.

Here is pretty much the entire town of Chicken, a gift shop, a saloon, and a café, all owned by the same woman.

There are also a couple of campgrounds, which are nicer than you would expect for such a town. Here is a shot of ours. Most of the rigs belong to wanna-be miners who come up for the summer to mine for gold. From the looks of things, I don’t think many of them are going home rich.

These are the campground outhouses, probably some of the nicest “facilities” in Chicken. There are no flush toilets in the town, seeing as all the, ahem, “waste” needs to be trucked out of town for disposal.

This is a shot of the Pedro dredge, once used to mine gold. The dredge sits in the river, scoops up gravel on one end, separates out the gold, and spits everything else out the other end.

The town of Chicken has fully embraced its name as indicated by the many varieties of chicken images that can be found around the area.

First chicken you notice in front of the town.

Look closely and there is another “bush” chicken nearby as well.

Chicken metal art.

Another metal art chicken, a pair of these flank the entrance to the dredge.

These chicks identify the towns outhouses, men’s AND women’s, tres chic!

Other chickeny images around the town buildings.

And even some honest to goodness live chickens. These are in a pen between the cafe and the saloon. The old guy eating eggs at the cafe tells me these chickens are still too small to give decent eggs, but they’ll be earning their keep pretty soon or else they’ll be dinner I suspect.

My favorite chicken is on the grounds of our campground. The owner tells us it is was made as a school welding/art project by a teacher friend of his. Its about 12 feet tall and actually made mostly from old school lockers.

Whoa! Chicken overload.

And one last picture of Brian, who probably didn’t think Reen would manage to get a picture in time. Oops!

Delta Junction, What’s Your Function

Aug. 16 2012

We’re on the road from Chena Hot Springs to Delta Junction. Our route takes us back through Fairbanks, so we take the opportunity to stop at Walmart and refill our cupboards as this will probably be the last decent shopping opportunity for a while.

Along the way we stop at Rika’s roadhouse, once a real roadhouse, now a state historic site. Reen and I remember stopping here on our previous Alaska tour. Its pretty late so we have the place pretty much to ourselves. We spend an hour or so wandering about the grounds before continuing on our way.

This is an old sod roof building.

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Reen’s favorite flower shot from the garden.

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There were also goats and chickens. Maureen was apparently in an anti-chicken mood, or perhaps she is in the pocket of Big-Goat, because she only gave me a picture of a goat to post. (Chicken lovers don’t despair, your time is coming…)

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Delta Junction is a small town that marks the official end of the Alaska Highway. On our trip into Alaska we turned south at Tok before this point, so this is our first time here. Tomorrow we will drive on the only remaining part of the Alaska Highway, the road from Delta Junction to Tok. Here is the official end marker for the Alaska Highway. Its been quite a while since we left the start marker at Dawson Creek, 1422 miles away, as shown on the sign.

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We Get In Hot Water in Chena

Aug. 14-15 2012

Today we head north out of Fairbanks to the small town of Chena, still yet another town at the end of a road. There’s really only one thing there, the Chena Hot Springs Resort. There is a large outdoor hot spring, indoor and outdoor hot tubs and an indoor pool for soaking. With due respect to the other bathers, there will be no pictures of the pools (ok, we forgot to get some those shots).

The resort used to be owned and run by the state but is now in private hands. As part of their effort to actually turn a profit, they have adopted a wide variety of environmentally friendly technologies. We are there early enough to get a tour of the grounds.

The focus of the tour is a geothermal system used to generate the electricity. Reen gives the tour guide a thorough grilling, but backs off before we get banned from the property. Their system is somewhat unique (and experimental) in that the temperature of the water used in the system is quite low (165 F) compared to typical geothermal systems (above 212 F). They get around this by using the water to heat a separate lower temperature coolant, which in turn powers through the generators. They claim their two existing units, a third is in the works, provide all the resort’s electricity needs.

We also learned about some other technologies they are attempting to help develop and/or use. One was a machine for turning most recyclable plastics directly into fuel (like gasoline or diesel); there was a small working tabletop model, on display. I don’t recall if there is a bigger version in production yet on the site yet.

They are also trying to grow as much of their food as possible. And the tour includes some of the greenhouses. Here’s Brian checking out one of the outdoor gardens which supplement the greenhouses in summer.

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The main indoor growing is done all hydroponically. This is the lettuce area. It’s a very long room where there continuously keep plants at all stages of growth so they can harvest every few days.

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And there are lots of tomatoes. The vines grow really long; you can see them running along the rows at the bottom.

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Everything is started from seed. These are new seedlings sprouting is some little mineral wool cubes.

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They also have goats! They apparently serve no important purpose, but they are fun to show visitors. The tour guide gives us treats to feed them, and they seem to like being pet just like dogs.

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A sled dog kennel is also on the premises, with dozens of dogs for sled dog rides in the winter. A nearby pen holds the retirees and the washouts, now available for adoption. Despite much prodding,Brian reluctantly leaves without a new friend. Poor Miso is probably still pacing in her pen wondering what she did wrong.

The rest of the day is spent soaking in the spring and relaxing around the campsite.

Our next day at the spring is spent on the trail. There is a trail that leaves from the property and heads off into the surrounding hills. Our intended destination is called Angel Rocks. It’s a long way to get there, and when we do, we find rocks. Mildly interesting rocks. At the rocks, we spend some time establishing committees to discuss and investigate the possible alternatives for returning back to the springs. After analyzing the resulting reports and taking into account the public feedback, the final decision is made to return back the way we came.

Despite the anti-climactic destination, it was overall a very enjoyable hike. Since most of the hike was up on a ridge over multiple peaks, there was an endless series of vistas to behold. And the weather so good, Reen and I did not even bring along our raingear.

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In the end it turns out to be an 8 hour, 14 mile round trip with lots of climbing. Luckily we have a hot springs to ease our aching bodies.

23 Years in Fairbanks

Aug. 11-13, 2012

Our next stop after Denali is Fairbanks. Its only about 2 hours north so we are in no rush to get out early. We head out around 11am and plan to stop in the small town of Nenana for lunch on the way.

The weather is nice and we pull into the Nenana visitor center (a small log building) parking lot just after noon. While enjoying our lunch on the picnic tables outside, we are approached by a woman from the visitor center. She informs us that not only is she not telling us we must leave, but that if we come inside she will give us free coffee and Fritos.

Not being ones to pass up free food, we head inside to be grilled by Glenys, the visitor center hostess. And not just any hostess, but “The Hostess with the Mostess! How do we know that? Because it says so right on her nametag.

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She is quite the talker and floods us with answers to questions we didn’t ask while we eat all the Fritos (which it turns out are really Cheetohs) elegantly served in that coffee filter on the desk. When we try to leave, Glenys breaks out the bag-o-candy, so we have some chocolate and listen to more stories about the town. Its possible there was a full-on turkey dinner waiting for us under that counter if we were willing to hear more but we managed to escape before it came to that.

We walked around the small town of Nenana, which probably wouldn’t exist if it was not on the train route and a river. The most interesting thing about the town is the ice lottery. Every year for many many years, they have been running a lottery based on guessing the exact time the ice breaks up on the Nenana river. People from all over Alaska enter, enough to fill a book about the size of the Manhattan phone book. The final prize amount for last year was almost $400,000!

They have a very interesting setup for determining the actual ice breakup time. It involves a welded pyramid of poles, an odd looking derrick and a small shack.

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The pole thing on the right gets frozen into the river a month or so before breakup. The center pole is moveable and attached with ropes and pulleys over to the top of the derrick where there are more ropes and pulleys. Another rope feeds down into the shack, which I think inside the derrick when in use.

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Inside the shack is a clock, some chairs, and a heater. When it looks like the ice is getting ready to break, a few trusted locals are tasked with 24 hour monitoring duty (i.e. chewing the fat while drinking beer) to ensure the integrity of the lottery.

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If I recall correctly, here’s how the whole thing works. When the ice finally melts, the center pole falls through the ice pulling on the rope its attached to. The other end of the rope is attached to a trigger mechanism at the top of the derrick. The pull of the rope releases the pin of the trigger mechanism. This in turn releases another rope going into the shack. Hanging on the end of this rope is something which when dropped stops the clock. Now Glenys mentioned this something was a cleaver. I’m not so sure. I’m thinking 3 drunk old guys and a flying cleaver is something that would have made the national news, and not in a good way, at some point over the last 100 years they’ve been doing this. In any case, Rube Goldberg has nothing on these guys.

Since Glenys seemed to be out of food, we saddled up and continued on to Fairbanks. Fairbanks, for the most part, turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. The town itself really feels like its seen much better days. There is a riverboat tour and a gold mining attraction, but we did neither as they both seemed to be a bit too touristy.

We did go the University of Alaska Museum of the North which was interesting. While not very large in size, they have a pretty comprehensive selection of displays and artifacts covering all things Alaska. Some of the more interesting exhibits included the worlds largest public display of gold (most just as it came from the ground), the story of the excavation and analysis of a 36000 year old mummified bison (named Blue  Babe), information on permafrost and the aurora borealis, and a movie about how people in Fairbanks feel about the 40 below zero winters. It turns out that 40 degrees below zero doesn’t feel that cold up here because it’s a “dry” cold. Seriously. I am not making this up.

The only other place we visited was an old dairy farm named Creamers. It hasn’t been a dairy farm for quite some time; now it’s a park with walking trails, and a major stop-over point for migrating birds. Right now the sandhill cranes are beginning to arrive. Apparently they all leave their nests, gather in places like this, and then head south to Texas and Louisiana in large masses.

Right now they only appear to number in the hundreds. In another week or two, when they have the sandhill crane festival, there will be many, many thousands. I’m guessing the week after that is a big week for the local car washes.

Cranes! And maybe some geese.

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Cranes (and more geese) in Water!

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Still more cranes, eating.

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Is that enough cranes? I don’t think so. Gotta have at least a few butt shots.

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Okay enough with the cranes already.

We ended our stay in Fairbanks with a nice dinner at the Silver Gulch Brewing Company, Americas northern-most brewery, to celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary.

A Big Post For A Big Park

I managed to keep a daily journal of our activities in Denali National Park. As a tribute to the vastness of the park and the mountain, I present the entire journal as one mega-post. This is our story.

Denali Day 1
Aug 2, 2012
Mostly Cloudy, Occasional Light Rain

Today is the day we finally head into the park. We get an early start with the hopes of getting a better spot in the campground. Before hitting the road we head over to the camp Mercantile to secure firewood and ice, and to pay for showers (our last real showers for a week).

Then its over to the dump station to flush our waste tanks and fill up with fresh water. We have a minor mishap while flushing out the black tank as both Reen and I lose our concentration and let the tank fill up a little too high causing some splash out and allowing some “stuff” to get places where it shouldn’t be. A little extra cleanup work and we’re back on track. We take our showers and then reform the caravan for the drive in.

We’re staying at the Teklanika campground which is about a 30 mile drive in. Even though much of the road is unpaved, it is pretty smooth and the drive is mostly uneventful. We even stop to see a moose and some caribou on the way. We find two nice campsites across from one another and set up for the long haul. The rest of the day is spent relaxing, exploring, and enjoying another birthday cake, this time for Brian and Will’s friend Paul.

We are disappointed to hear that the mountain is not visible from this campground, regardless of weather.

Moose spied on our drive to the campground. This poor guy seems to have an antler issue. The antler on his left side is actually hanging downward.

A few caribou decided to commandeer the road causing a little bit of a backup.

A nice vista through the windshield.

We make it to the campground.

Denali Day 2
Aug 3, 2012
Overcast, with rain, sleet, and snow!

On our first full day in the park, we head out on our reserved bus tour. We’re up early (for us) and on the bus by 9am. Our destination is the Eielson Visitor Center, a six hour round trip, with the intention of doing some hiking there. As we start out there is a light drizzle.

The bus is more comfortable than expected, and the ride goes pretty quickly, save for an annoying old guy in the seat behind us who just wants to talk. The road is quite precarious in places, especially with buses coming the other way, but our bus driver seems up to the task.

After a few stops along the way, we arrive at the visitor center for lunch. By this time a constant rain is falling. After lunch, we deliberate whether or not to hike in the rain, and decide to go for it. The hike we planned, to a nearby alpine peak, turns out to be shorter than expected, about a mile each way and up about 1000 ft. We start at the visitor center in the cold rain and end at the top in the colder sleet/snow.

After returning and warming up a bit in the visitor center and talking to the ranger about future hikes, we head out to the miserably cranky bus coordinator. He’s no help but our timing is good and we are able to get on the first bus leaving. This gets us back to camp around 5pm for a warm dinner and early bed.

Although we had no mountain sightings today, the bus rides did not disappoint in the wildlife department. We saw moose, grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, a falcon, and a coyote. Not bad for one day.

Reen and I at the top of our hike. We don’t look cold at all now, do we.

Our first bear sighting!

Another bear sighting.

Herd of caribou.

Sheep, very far away. Without the zoom, these would be white dots.

Coyote posing for everyone on the bus to get his picture.

View from Polychrome Pass.

Denali Day 3
Aug 4, 2012
Overcast, with occasional drizzle.

Today we’re signed up for a ranger led discovery hike. There is a special bus assigned which we pick up around 9:30am. We’re a bit dismayed to discover that our “favorite” annoying old guy from yesterday and his non-wife are going to be our hiking companions. We get Cindy who is the world’s friendliest bus driver; she had given Paul a personalized tour to Wonder Lake and back yesterday. She’s so popular, at one point on our ride we stop next to another bus and that driver hands Cindy a bag of cookies!

We pick up ranger Monica in about an hour or so at the Toklat rest stop (many of the rangers live nearby) and continue another half hour toward our destination, which is a river bed. Our hike takes us down the river bed and then about 1000 feet up a nearby mountain. We don’t get as high as we could due to an excessive amount of fog/mist up on the mountain. We learn lots of interesting information about the geology, flora, and fauna of Denali, most of which I have already forgotten. We learn even more about the lives of the annoying couple who wont stop talking which I wish I could forget as easily.

Still no sightings of the mountain. And still more sightings of wildlife. On the bus we see more grizzlies, caribou, sheep, and moose, as well as a fox. On the hike we got a close up of a hoary marmot and watched a bunch of very fat ground squirrels frolic amongst themselves.

View from the hike.

This marmot was waiting for us at the top. He never mover from that rock, just stared at us until we left.

A moose climbing up a hill rather quickly.

Some caribou grazing among the tall plants.

Bear with very brown legs roaming the braided river.

A bear two-fer!

Fox on a ridge running alongside the road.

Denali Day 4
Aug 5, 2012
Partly cloudy, with occasional light drizzle.

Today started out just like the previous days, we got up early and hopped a bus to head further into the park. We planned to hike Geode Mountain. However, since there looked like a chance of clearer weather, we chose to stay on the bus out to Eileson Visitor Center to gamble on seeing the mountain. We didn’t have as many wildlife sightings as on previous days, but the ones we did see were the best so far. We had two up close bear sightings, and one included a National Geographic worthy scene of a bear digging out and eating a ground squirrel.

As it turns out, we were too late to see the mountain. The upper parts had been visible earlier in the morning, but the clouds moved in before we got there. Tomorrow is another day.

It was too late to head back to Geode Mountain and get in a decent hike, so we headed up the same trail we did on day 1. This time, however, we continued off trail about another 3 miles up the ridge to another peak about 1100 feet higher. With much nicer weather today, we experienced some breathtaking views of the park on the way up. Reen and I also adopted a ptarmigan for part of the journey.

The high point of our hike was marked with a group of antennae. We took a break for snacks, but that was cut short by some fog moving in and some light rain/sleet/snow. The weather slowly improved as we continued down the ridge looking for a good route down the mountain. Then we got another close wildlife encounter with some sheep. Close enough for some great pictures but not so close as to spook them.

At this point, it was getting late, and without a known route down, we started to get concerned about catching a bus in time to get back to camp before 8. We considered continuing on for some gentler slopes down or heading back out the way we came, but in the end pretty much just slid straight down the scree on the side of the mountain. It looked pretty steep from the top but turned out to be relatively easy to “ski” down the gravel and small rocks. And fast too.

We got lucky and were able to flag down a bus just as we reached the road and managed to get back to camp around 6pm for some much needed generator time to recharge our batteries. And of course our favorite couple just happened to be on that bus as well. We cannot escape them; I believe they may have planted a tracking device on one of us. It’s a good thing they are leaving tomorrow, because some of our party (who shall remain nameless) are beginning to consider setting fire to their tent.

We have a nice dinner and manage to catch the ranger presentation on wolves (summary: wolves are great), before heading in for an early bed.

Another bear from the bus, this time less than 50 feet away.

This bear has just dug up a ground squirrel from its hole and is chomping down on it. He was just above eye level from the bus windows.

Big views from the hike.


Our friend the ptarmigan. We accidentally rousted this guy from under a snow cave, and he tagged along with us for quite a while thereafter.

Dall sheep lounging about. He had three other friends with him.

Here we are on Thorofare Ridge.

There was even a rainbow!

View of the slope we “hiked” down. Its about 1000 feet high. We came down in that crease.

That’s us going down the slope.

Woo hoo, we made it to the flatter grassy area. Now we only have to worry about bears between us and the road.

Denali Day 5
Aug 6, 2012
Partly sunny.

We had learned earlier in the week that today was expected to have the best weather. We expected this day to be our last and best chance to see the mountain, so we decided to devote the entire day to this one goal.

We wake up around 5am in order to catch the first bus out. The morning (till around 10am) is usually the clearest part of the day and only the first two buses get to the viewing areas in time. We are first in line at the bus stop, just barely beating an entire troop of boy scouts. We finally catch our first break as there are exactly 4 free seats available on the bus when it arrives.

The morning is still overcast but there are signs of light in the sky as we move westward toward the visitor center. Then it happened. At about 2 hours in we caught our first real glimpse of the mountain, almost all the way to the top. From there to the visitor center the view just kept on getting better and better. At the final overlook before the visitor center we got the million dollar view. It took 8 years and 8000 miles to get, and we were not disappointed. It is one damn nice hunk of rock and ice. I think we all breathed quite a sigh of relief knowing that we would not have to leave without experiencing the mountain.

We stayed on the bus another 20 or so miles beyond the visitor center all the way to Wonder Lake. This part of the road can provide almost uninterrupted mountain viewing but as the morning grew long, the clouds started forming around the mountain and it once again disappeared out of existence; the only downside to an otherwise perfect morning.

Once again the bus trip provided ample wildlife viewing opportunities. We saw a golden eagle for the first time on this trip. And we got even closer views of bears than yesterday, which nobody thought would be possible. But today, the bears (and caribou) were intent on traveling directly on the roads. One bear was literally brushing up against the bus as he walked by.

We ended the day by going to a ranger presentation on the dog sled teams used by the park for all winter transportation within the park, and by enjoying a wild blueberry cobbler Brian made for dessert from blueberries he had picked today at Wonder Lake and the areas around the campground. Yum!

Here’s are very first decent view of Denali from the road.

At long last, the mountain in its entirety!

And just to prove we were there…

One last view from the Eielson Visitor Center. The clouds are filling in.

Extreme bear closeup. This guy walked right alongside the bus.

Caribou close through the bus windshield.

Denali Day 6
Aug 7, 2012
Cloudy and Rainy

After 5 days of early wakeup calls, and expecting bad weather, Reen and I decided to take a day off and hang around the campground for a relaxing day. We had a nice egg breakfast to start the day. Reen did some sewing while I read most of the morning and took apart our once again leaking water pump.

After lunch, we went blueberry picking at a blueberry patch near the campground that Brian discovered last night. We had a little trouble finding it, but eventually did and returned to the camper a couple of hours later with about 4 cups of wild blueberries.

I made some pizza for dinner which came out pretty good and then it was our turn to host the blueberry cobbler dessert party.

No pictures, it was the photographers day off.

Denali Day 7
Aug. 8, 2012
Partly Cloudy

For our last full day in Denali, we are signed up for another ranger led discovery hike, this time to Cathedral Mountain. After last night’s heavy rain we are thankful to see some blue sky when the alarm goes off. The hike starts only 8 miles out on the bus, so we get to spend most of the day hiking instead of riding for a change. We enjoy a nice 5 mile, 1600 ft elevation gain hike with ranger Kimber and are back at the camper around 3pm.

We spend our last afternoon, relaxing and prepping for breaking camp tomorrow. After a leisurely dinner, we all share s’mores around the campfire before heading off to bed.

Since we did not spend much time on the bus our wildlife sightings today were limited to some squirrels on the hike, and one lone caribou on a mountain ridge someone spotted while we waited on the road for a bus back to camp after the hike.

Reen’s favorite view picture from the hike.

Our hiking party. From left to right: Colorado Guy, Charlotte who works at the Toklat book store, Will, Ranger Kimber, Me, Brian, off duty Ranger Brian, and Reen(behind the camera).

Will, Me and Reen at the highest point we hiked to.

Here’s the lone caribou.

And the squirrel.

Denali Day 8
Aug. 9 2012
Sunny!

Today is the day we leave our campground in Denali Park. We wake up on the early side and Reen notices that it is an unexpected sunny day! While we are happy to see the sun, we are sad not to have this day to enjoy the park, especially knowing that the mountain is likely completely visible. Reen has been reading a book all about the park and discovers there is a lookout point on the road out where the mountain can be viewed. So we decide to pack up as fast as possible and head out to the lookout for a last mountain viewing. We get there around 9am and there was plenty of room to park so we set up our chairs for some relaxed mountain viewing. Brian and Will, who had more packing up to do, showed up about a half hour later.

We had some pretty good views for a couple of hours. We weren’t in a rush to get out, and the park staff didn’t seem to mind, so we decided to hang out for what turned out to be most of the day. In addition to seeing the mountain, we watched a distant bear for a while, went for a nice hike on a nearby peak, and picked more wild blueberries. We looked so at home there that whenever a park bus stopped and let visitors off, they all wanted to apologize for disturbing us! Most would not even walk in front of our chairs until we prodded them.

We finally make it out of the park around 4pm, stopping at the entrance to flush our tanks and eat some ice cream. We decide to stick around for two more nights to explore some areas of the park near the entrance that we did not have time to visit on the way in. So, we pulled into an RV park about 10 minutes north of the park. After relaxing a bit, we end the day with a nice meal at the 49th State Brew Pub in the nearby town of Healy.

Relaxing at the overlook like we own the place.

Our last view of the mountain.

Our last picture in front of the mountain. What is up with my hair? I hope there is a barber in Fairbanks.

Maureen doing some yoga on our hike.

On the final drive out we crossed paths with a rather interesting caribou. Initially he was off in the brush so motionless for so long, we thought maybe he was fake. Then he suddenly got very agitated, frequently shaking his head in a violent manner. He started darting around erratically and ended up in the middle of the road as you can see. About 15 seconds later he bolted up the side of the road right alongside our car. It was so fast we barely had time to turn around to watch the blur. Good thing too, because if Reen had been leaning out the window, she’d probably be wearing those antlers now.

Denali Bonus Day
Aug. 10 2012
Sunny, then cloudy, then rainy.

We spent our bonus day going back to the park entrance area. Most visitors to the park never get beyond this point. We visited the park’s science center, went back to the main visitor center, and did some souvenir shopping.

In the afternoon, we took a short bus ride out to the park’s sled dog kennels for a program. We got to pet the dogs and then listened to a ranger talk followed by a live sled demonstration. Those dogs love to run! In the winter, the dog teams provide the only ranger transportation into the park; they do not use powered snow machines. In some cases, the trip to the end of the park road can take a couple of weeks to complete. The teams literally log 1000’s of miles each winter season in minus 20-30 degree temperatures.

We had planned to walk back to the visitor center, but it started to rain and we ended up back on the bus. Before leaving the park, we drove back in toward the kennels to view some of the oldest remaining park buildings, now used for the park headquarters and supporting offices.

The dogs are resting with water and treats after their demonstration run.

Some of the older park buildings.