Thursday, June 22, 2017

Day 19 Soldatna to Anchorage

Today the intent is to drive back toward Anchorage and make it to the air base there for a shower.  Let's see if that happens.  I easily get sidetracked by stuff off the beaten path.

I was slow leaving Soldatna.  I had my coffee at McDs and then walked along the creek trail.  The boardwalk is metal and the dogs weren't liking it, so I took them back to the van to finish this walk.  There were other older people out walking the trail.

I took it slowly today, stopping at historical places while driving east.  A mother moose and her two calves caused a bit of a pile-up near town.

My one surprise was stopping in Hope and walking the cliffs above the mudflats.  We only walked near the rock, as the mud can suck you down.  There was an eagle pair near the old town.  I talked to an older volunteer musuem volunteer from New York who was eager to tell me the history of the place.  I parked at an undeveloped campsite for a few hours before continuing toward Anchorage.

Stopped to get some real glacier water off a spring coming out of the rock.  It's a popular stop for locals to harvest drinking water.

Made it to Anchorage by 9pm, parked off 4th street and tried the 49th State Brew pub before going to Elmendorf AFB for the night.

Tomorrow: Flattop Mountain in the morning.

(This is an abridged journal; too tired to write more)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Day 18: Homer to Soldatna

I was up again by 3:30am, still sitting up in the driver's seat.  I could see low tide now, and a wide, cleanly-swept beach was exposed.  Several dog walkers drove up in the early hours to walk their dogs in the low-tide beach, so I did the same at 7am, when  the sun had warmed up my body enough to venture out.  I started on the bay and then moved to the Beluga Slough, then back to the bay.  Moose tracks were around the slough and several bald eagles sauntered the fresh beach.  Sadie and Zeke played in the sand, whose waters will wipe the beach clean of their tracks with the next tide.  We had walked 2.17 miles for the morning.

I was hungry and stopped at the nearby Two Sisters coffee and bakery.  The coffee and cheesecake I ordered were quite tasty, and the perpetual line of customers tells me this is a busy and popular place. One thing I did note, though:  all electric plugs are sealed shut in the customer dining area.  Apparently moochers like me who like to plug in a laptop for a free recharge while in the store are discouraged from lingering in the shop long after the coffee and cake are gone.  At least it offers free open wifi.

There really isn't much to Homer besides the view of the fjords from the Spit.  You can't stop on the Spit and park and walk around without paying for parking, which is strictly watched with yellow wearing parking nannies. This is a fishing-RV-touristy town with a very small historic district.  Lots of people live off the grid here.  I noticed this all along the highway to Homer.

I drove back north on the highway I took into Homer.  Skies were clearer today and ten miles out of town I could see the snow-capped mountains across the Cook inlet.  I stopped again at the Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik but this time spent time with family living off the grid here.  The kids were selling fudge and sodas and I bought some in exchange with chatting and taking their photos. The nine-year-old is smarter than his years but doesn't seem happy having to live in the conditions he lives in:  the family has two old trailers as their home.  They use solar and wind power, get their water from a nearby creek, harvest some wild plants.  Dillon, their father, showed me how the starchy roots of a chocolate lilly can be boiled and eaten like rice.  The fudge was also quite good.

I did more historical exploring and chatting today than hiking.  I stopped at the historical site in Kassilof, walked around the rebuilt cabins of the first homesteaders and then made it back to old Kenai. This time I ate lunch at the Burger Bus where I had the cheapest burger yet on the Kenai.  The owners were also very friendly and happy to serve me.  From there I stopped at the Kassik brewery outside Nisilki, a small tasting room where I tried all eight beers in 2-ounce glasses and chatted with the owners and a young man, Peter, who said I sat next to him last night at the St Elias brewpub but we didn't talk.  Now today we chatted up a storm.  He lives in San Antonio but works for Tesoro, a big refiner in Alaska.  He was up here for business and had to fly out at 7pm for the redeye flight back down to Texas.  Like me, he likes to taste microbrews.  Two other men, Kevin and Marty from Eugene, were curious how it was for me to travel so long alone.  I never really thought of the I dangers since I am aware of them and act accordingly.  One thing I don't do alone here is hike, because of the bears, and instead do town pathways for exercise.

The couple running the Kassik brewery, Debbie and Frank, are from the Redding, CA area.  Both started the company out of their home brewing hobby; neither one is a master brewer.  But the beers I tasted were all very good. Frank, however, is now 60 years old and tired of the task.  He doesn't see himself brewing more than five years more.  Their son Jason helped for a while but has since left Alaska for warmer pastures.  The brewery is nestled in the spruce trees outside of town, with limited hours (closing at 7pm)  They have won several awards for their  Scotch Ale and sell in Washington state.

The tasting room got crowded just before I left.  Peter took off for the airport and I said my goodbyes to the owners and Kevin and Marty.  I drove back to Soldatna and parked in the Fred Meyer lot where I called it an early day.

I drove 142.4 miles today, all empty ones since I'm backtracking.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Day 17 Onward to Kenai and Homer

I missed Holly's departure but I was up to chat with Doug before he took off for work at 6:30am.  Now I was all alone once more.  Most of my stuff was already packed from yesterday morning.  My suitcase, battery charger, laptop and hygiene kit were all that remained.  A light drizzle hid the sun.  This is the summer solstice and I plan on spending it in Kenai for tonight.  I'll be exploring the highway there. Should be plenty of bald eagles and the salmon should be spawning.  I'm not much into salmon, but I might as well see the fish while I'm up here.

I'll be back in Nina's neighborhood by Saturday and we will do Summit Lake then.  I finally drove away at 10:13am, after a rainy 2.2-mile loop walk around Vinewood Lane.  Zeke didn't mind the drizzle, but Sadie looked tired.

My first place today was visiting Exit Glacier of the Kenai Fjord National Park.  The glacier slowly comes into view along the 8.6-mile drive to the visitor's center.  Markers depicting the year mark other documented lengths of the glacier that is clearly dwindling in size. I hiked up as far as I could go, taking in the impressive views of this receding glacier.  Lots of Japanese tourists were sharing the path with me.  If it hadn't been raining, I'd have gone down to the closest point possible, but the wet rocks made that attempt too dangerous.  A quick exhibit on black and brown bears by a forest ranger Anne Fineman from Long Island completed my tour.  I had spent over two hours at this busy park and I'm glad I got to walk the trail!  The 2.6-mile route is just perfect for a leg stretcher.

The rain started letting up early in the afternoon, making my drive north toward Moose Pass easier.  I stopped for 40 minutes at the I.R.B.I knife shop (that stands for "I'd Rather Be Independent") and met the jovial knife carver, Virgil Hunter.  He carves knives out of high-grade carbon steel and attaches them to moose antler, Alaskan corral or anything else, and custom makes them according to customer's needs.  "I don't get paid until I finish a knife" explained Virgil, showing me a $1200 knife and that one wasn't even his most expensive.

Hunter and his father moved up here in the mid 1960s from Idaho and built the log cabin store by hand. Outside he keeps wood carvings from another artist from New Mexico, and three mannequins that pose right off the highway shoulder.  It's these mannequins that caught my attention.   He showed me his military coin collection, talked about the rock band Aerosmith that stopped by and bought a knife back in the early 1990s, and showed me his old camera collection and police patch collection, mostly donated by customers and passers-by.  Hunter was as interesting to talk to as his exhibit store.  He and his store are probably in an Alaskan version of Off The Beaten Path roadside attractions.

I slowly made it to Kenai in the late afternoon, crossing a very scenic stretch  of the highway going west through Cooper's Landing and Sterling before the landscape flattened out to marshy flats studded with scraggly black spruce.  I wanted to see the historic Russian Orthodox church in Kenai, one of the oldest in Alaska.  I found it near a bluff overlooking the Cook inlet, with apartments around it.  I ended up walking another 2.7 miles with the dogs along the breezy coastline and through a municipal park, up the Meeks trail and back.  A yellow warning sign reporting the last bear sighting as June 3 was posted in the park.

I finished off my day at the St. Elias brewpub in Soldatna, 12 miles east of Kenai.  The area has everything for the traveler.  Even gasoline was cheaper than in Seward: $2.85 to $3.05, with all the fast food franchises.  RVs were lined up in the Fred Meyer parking lot but that is not where I wanted to spend the night.  With cloudy skies above, I made the decision to drive down to Homer to watch solstice move in.  That also was a pretty drive, with another Russian church in Ninilchik overlooking the bay.  Clouds hid any sun set (not that I was expecting one) and at 10:30pm as I drove to the Spit and back, I could see plenty of people walking the pathway and diners enjoying a meal.  The fjords to the south were visible from this location.  The town wasn't bustling now as people were slowly ending their day's activities.  The Spit was packed with RVers so I opted to get back on the mainland, parking at Bishop's Beach to watch twilight move in.  The sun never did set.  There were signs warning against overnight camping, but there were two other vehicles parked near the shore so I joined them.  A cop car drove by around midnight but did not stop.  Apparently it's an unwritten rule that overnight camping and dog walking are allowed as long as the campers and dogs don't get loud or aggressive.

It was a very peaceful night.  The water barely made a sound.  It was 50F when I fell asleep in the driver's seat, still in an upright position.

I drove 252.5 miles today, with a total of 4744 miles to date.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Day 16: Seward local hikes

Holly was quietly up and out before I was awake in the upper loft.  She was gone by 4:30am and Doug had just left the lodge for his job with the National Park Service at 6:30am when I got up.  I was now alone.  I let the dogs out to pee (no surprises this morning!), finished the last of the coffee, washed a load and uploaded my blog.  I'm still so far behind, especially with adding photographs to my hikes.  I finally left the lodge at 10:45am

Holly told me today would be the last of the sunny days.  Which hike would I try?  Mount Marathon in town sounded interesting.  While steep, the loop around is under five miles with views of Resurrection Bay.  That was tempting.  I wanted to do something short and scenic that wouldn't be too exhausting after yesterday's long hike. This will be my last full day in Seward before I head back north, stop for a few short hikes, return to the Knik area and hike with Nina if she has time, and then head back down the Alcan at the end of the month.  I want to see the towns of Kenai and Valdez as well.  Rain, however, will return tomorrow for the rest of the week.

Today was a smorgasbord of short local hikes.  I started with the Mount Marathon hike.  The trail head off Monroe and 2nd Ave was easy to find and I found a spot right across the street to park.  It turned out Zeke was getting restless, pacing in the back of the van.  He will only do that when he has to go, and go he did, just outside the van and on the edge of someone's garden.  It was the same diarrhea from yesterday.  Now I know who the culprit was!  He didn't show any other issues the rest of the day, so hopefully whatever gave Zeke the squirts is now on the mend.

The trailhead is near the historic southern part of Seward so I decided to walk around here.   I even went local and kept my sweater and rain jacket in the van and just wore my red DriWeave shirt.  A local bank marquee said it was 59F out; it felt more like 33F!

I also went tourist. I kept the dogs resting in the van while walking along the waterfront, former start of the official Ididarod race.  It's a nice little walkway, with historical markers along the way.  One could watch whales and otters but today I saw neither; just a lot of annoying seagulls.  A tent and RV campground managed by the city of Seward is near the northern end of the park.  It's $10 to tent, $20 to dry camp with an RV. It's not a bad deal at all if you can get a spot.

I had a quick lunch at the Thorn's Showcase and Lounge for a quick patty melt and Alaskan Ale.  The lounge is also a restaurant that seems to be stuck in the 1970s.  It was dark inside and I sat at the bar near the entrance.  The place was busy during my stay.  The prices were reasonable for what I got in Seward.  Seems like you can't get a plain cheeseburger for under $13.

After my walk in town, I drove to Two Lakes park near the base of Mount Marathon to walk the dogs through this small park.  The trails all run north-south and aren't marked, but one would have to be completely directionless to get lost here.  A homeless man jumped out of the bushes when I parked, ran up to the neighboring picnic area to watch me, and waved.  That was a tad creepy.  The man was not there 45 minutes later when I got back from the walk.  It started drizzling as I drove off, and the mountains around Resurrection Bay were slowly getting shrouded in fog again.  Looks like the usual rain is back.

My last walk was around the commercial marina, where fisherman were cutting up their day's catch. Salmon and other ugly fish lay dead in wheelbarrows waiting to get filleted. By now the rain clouds were concealing the mountains.  One cool thing I saw was a giant chalkboard with "Before I Die" and people were encouraged to write something down that they still want to do.  I wrote "Hike around Alaska."  I guess this road trip has fulfilled that dream of mine.

My daily walking mileage came to 5.5 miles. My driving mileage was under 23.6 miles:  to and from and around Seward. Grand Total so far is 4491.5 miles.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Day 15: Seward's Lost Lake trail, (14.5 miles)

The hike to Lost Lake is perhaps the most popular hike in the Seward area.  It's the one hike I wanted to do based on Holly's photos on Facebook.  It's also one of her local favorites and she wanted to hike this trail with me.  Several other trails connect to the Lost Lake trail system that allows backpackers, mountain bikers and day hikers to extend this hike.  This is what we did.  We started north on the Primrose trail and hiked south for eight miles before connecting with the Lost Lake trail. Elevation at the start was around 500' and meandered through temperate rain forest, then tops out for five miles along alpine habitat at 2200.'

The early morning, however, was not a good start.  I got to the van at 7:30am to let the dogs out to pee and discovered a massive explosion of diarrhea on my sleeping pads and sleeping bag and part of my pillow. No wonder Sadie jumped out of the van so fast! Luckily the mess was only on my washables and I had a hose outside the lodge to spray the mess off, but had this happened along the remote Alcan, I would have been literally in deep shit.  I won't be feeding raw meats to the dogs so late in the day again!  They seemed fine once on the trail.

Doug dropped us off at the trail head and we started the hike at 9:18am.  There was no one else at this trail head.  The more popular route to start at is the southern trail head going north.  We were alone and Holly made an effort to clap her hands and chat to warn the bears of our presence.  I was tired and still lethargic from having been up late the night before.  I blew my whistle a few times. And when at the 4-mile mark I discovered that I had dropped my phone and had to retrack my route for .6 miles, I knew my fatigue was making me do errors I wouldn't normally do.  I was up late the night before trying to update this blog and now I was paying a price.

The trail slowly ascends through a spruce forest.  Open views north expose Kenai lake.  An old ski lodge is off the trail three miles into the hike, but the alpine views don't come until around the fifth mile as the glaciers approach and the trail follows a fairly level ridgeline. Approaching Lost Lake from the north like we did is longer, but the ascent is not as steep as from the southern terminus.  Holly hadn't hiked the trail from this approach and got to enjoy the views for the first time just like I did.  The ridgeline was like hiking the John Muir trail all over again, except that trail lingers more at the 10,000' and not 2000'.

The NO CAMPFIRE rule goes into effect at around 2000, or at the 5th mile.  That is when the trail going south approaches the ridgeline and the timberline ends.  This alpine elevation continues until the 11th mile.  We crossed several snow patches and a bridge over a creek (which Zeke insisted on fording rather than using the foot bridge)

We ate a snack at the 7th mile facing Lost Lake.  The dogs each got a pouch of wet food and rested.  Once I rested with some trail mix and an apple, I felt more energized.  We had a final ascent to the highest peak at 2240' and it was all downhill from there.  Most of the people we met were now coming up from the south, both mountain bikers and hikers.  Many of the local men were shirtless despite the 55F.  Some of the fitter women were wearing tank tops and running gear, And here I was keeping warm in two layers of DriWeave and a winter rain coat!

Seward and Resurrection Bay are visible from the high peak.  Seward is not a big town and its small size is even minimized from this view.  But what a view this is!  We were now slowly reentering the rain forest and nearing the southern trail head.  The hike took us 6:20 hours.  At 3:38pm we were at the southern parking lot and Doug came within a few minutes later to pick us up.  It's only a few minutes from their lodge.  In my final fatigue I had left my cellphone camera on the bench while waiting for our ride, and that camera was still there 4.5 hours later when I came back to retrieve it!

This hike is highly recommended for those visitors who want to experience Alaska's southern coast.  I am so grateful I had a willing, patient guide like Holly showing me the local beauty.

I knew the dogs were as tired as I was.  I gave them water and they rested the rest of the day in the van with no other explosive surprises.  I ate my breakfast burrito that I had purchased in Knik on the drive down, had a few local beers from my 12-pack and called it a day.  Both Dough and Holly go back to work tomorrow and I will be on my own for the day.

The big kicker today was learning from Doug after the hike and on our short drive home that a home owner at the northern trailhead had stopped Doug as he was driving away to warn him of two grizzlies that were in his yard that showed no fear of humans.  They were near the trail when we started.  That now explains Zeke's stance at the start when he stopped in front of me to smell the air.  He probably got a scent of the bears.  He never chased or ran around me like he normally does at the start of any hike. Both dogs stayed close by the entire time.  We did spot some scat near the start, too,  a dark brown furless pile that we wondered was grizzly scat.  It was still soft to the touch.  As Holly said, ignorance is bliss.  Had we known at the start that two bears were nearby, we probably would have hiked in a more panicked mode.  Why ruin a good thing?

Miles driven today (to and from trailhead looking for lost phone) 18.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Day 14: Seward's Tonsina Creek and waterfall hike (6.9 miles)

I slept good.  I had fallen asleep on the couch with my laptop still on me, then climbed upstairs to the guest bedroom in the loft.  I awoke after 7am and Holly was already up and reading news on her laptop.  I joined her for morning chat and coffee before Doug was up and we had a simple breakfast of toast and jelly.  Holly researched the low tide for today to be at 1:23pm, so she settled for a hike up Tonsina Creek to the waterfall.  I always enjoy hikes to waterfalls, and a seen-mile hike sounds like just the right distance.

Tonsina Creek is south of Seward along the coast. The road to the trail head hugged both the sheer cliffs along the road as well as the rocky coast itself; this was a road that requires driver attention.  We parked at the Lowell Point state park and hiked in.  The trail is easy, with an elevation between 28 to 265 feet.  The tricky part is planning this hike at low tide because the last 1.5 miles are along the coast. Crashing waves, squawking eagles, children's squeals, motorboat engines and leaves rasping are the noises that envelope hikers on this trail.

The dogs were offleash.  I'd either hold them by their collars or hook them back onleash whenever oters with dogs passed us.  Most other dogs were also offleash.  Only twice did I have a slip.  Once Sadie barked at a beach jogger and once Zeke ran after a French bulldog mix DESPITE me calling him.  He's normally good at freezing on command when I call his name.  Sadie is growing more intolerant of other dogs as she's entering her senior years.

Hiking in southern Alaska is like hiking in Washington state's rain forest.  The spaghum moss glistens when the sun shines on it.  The hemlocks tower high and the spruce provide the shade.  The ground is soft and spongy.  The only difference seems to be the 20-degree cooler temperatures between Washington and Alaska.  Today's weather was the best weather yet on my road trip:  it did not rain or get foggy today!

There were a lot of people of all abilities walking this trail.  We crossed two bridges, walked over a long boardwalk reinforced with thin rope to prevent slippage, and then watched our footing as we maneuvered over the shale along the coast. Kelp, barnacles, crab shells and salt residue covered this shale rock.  The farther out from the shore we walked, the bigger the shale was.  A grove of dead trees stood guard near one section.  Two glaciers were visible from across the inlet.  Sail boats glided across the water, bald eagles soared overhead.  This was the Alaska of vacation guides.

The entire hike was either close to or on the shoreline.  At the 3.2-mile mark we could hear the waterfall, but we had to walk another .2 miles to reach it.  This was well worth the hike!  Had we stayed on the shore for another two miles, we would have reached Caines Head State Recreation area, an area accessible only by foot along the coast, and we could have explored old World War II bunkers. The bunkers are a popular overnight camping destination.  Four young people were heading that way as we were heading back out.

The tide was now moving quickly back in.  Several large boulders that were exposed as we walked to the falls were now covered in water as we returned back.  I didn't want the dogs stuck close to water and moved on ahead in parts.  Another couple from Wasila took Holly's advice about the waterfall and also said that was great advice.  The falls aren't listed in the write-ups for this hike.

The hike took us 3:11 hours.  The dogs were well exercised and happy to be back in the van resting as we dropped them off and returned to Seward for some beer at the Seward brewpub, perhaps one of the few breweries that actually closes in the winter.  We passed on the food and just tried the stout and hefeweizen.   The hefe ("El Jefeweizen") was at 6.3% rather strong and unlike most hefes too potent, and the Lager at 4.4% almost too weak in contrast to the Hefe.  The 5% stout lacked body, but the Imperial stout at 7.3% was better.  The beers were not cheap, but I knew that going into the establishment.

Holly cooked up some vegetables while Doug fired up some brats and that was our meal today, over a stimulating conversation about the current politics.  I haven't been able to read up on all the news since coming to Alaska because no one else listens to news radio while driving.

Holly and Doug went to bed by 9:30pm.  Their last words were to be careful walking the dogs later on because a male grizzly was spotted off Vineland Road, just a mile on the other side of Stony Creek. Perhaps the bear was tracking the moose we spotted earlier in the yard of a house nearby as we headed into town for beer.

Miles driven today: 0.  Doug did all the driving in his Chevy pickup

Friday, June 16, 2017

Day 13: Knik to Seward

Today was the day Nina, Holly and I planned to get together to hike.  Nina and Holly opted to hike Winner Creek in Girdwood

More later

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Day 12 Hatcher's Pass, Palmer

My alarm got me up but I wasn't ready to get up.  It was quiet in Nina's bedroom upstairs.  The dogs were content napping in the van.  I let them out to pee, which they did, but they also went right back into the van to continue napping.  They weren't ready for their morning hike and neither was I.

Today's plan was to hike up to Summit Lake at Hatcher's Pass.  Nina hadn't been there yet and of course I'm new to it all.  Any hike in the area would do as all the trails here provide for either a view, a lake, or high meadow.  After a quick breakfast at home we drove off in Nina's GMC truck, with the dogs in the back bed on their familiar dog bed.  Both dogs kept their eyes on me in the front cab as we drove 23 miles to Hatcher's Pass, site of the now historic Independence mine (elevation 3500').  The hillsides were still saturated with snow melt but the grass was a lush green.  The parking lot was quite full when we arrived.  I bought a park pass, we parked, and walked the mile uphill to the  historic site.  Most of the buildings have been restored to their original design.  Gold was mined here until 1951.  At one point this place housed both single men and families with children.

We had good weather for the morning.  We arrived to a full parking lot and hiked the one-mile trail uphill to the actual mine location.  The dogs were offleash (state parks only require dogs on leash in parking lots, trailheads and buildings.)  Neither dog ventured far.  The valley was opening up to our southeast as we neared the mine site.  Back onleash, both dogs were well behaved.  I tied them up only twice, while viewing displays inside several buildings.

Independence mine is now a popular place for recreation, from skiing in the winter to hiking in the summer.  We could see groups hiking high to Gold Cord Lake (a hike for another day).  We stayed on the trail around the old buildings, a three-mile path that was paved only at the mine site.  Nina wanted to save her energy for Summit Lake, the hike that was originally planned for today.  I wanted to go higher up the hillside, but the state park borders private property.  Rain clouds were moving in as well, making us want to descend sooner rather than later.  We hiked back the way we came.

My phone has been acting up when using the hiking app.  It was constantly turning off the GPS.  I didn't get an accurate reading of the distance covered.  My app read 2.8 miles while Nina, who uses the same app, got 3.4 miles.  My phone app has been short-changing me since I paid premium price for this app!

The road up to Summit Lake, which is just below the mine entrance, was still closed as we drove by.  Clouds continued to move in but we didn't let that stop up.  We stopped again at the Fishhook trail head, just below the Summit Lake turn off, to try for another hike.  This is a popular berry-picking area but the berries haven't even started growing yet.  August here is picking season.  I let the dogs rest in the back of the van as we started out, but not even a mile uphill along the rim and we got blasted with a hail storm.  At first the hail was the size of peas, but the hail grew in both size and intensity.  I mentioned the hail was the size of garbanzo beans but Nina said they were looking like marbles.  The hail hit my ears and that hurt.  I'm so glad the dogs weren't traumatized by hail pounding, but I'm sure they were wondering what was going on with the pounding on the back of the truck.  The parking lot was covered in hail as we got back.  Four runners were seeking shelter by the pay station.  So much for another hike to round out our daily average.

The sky cleared up as we approached Palmer.  We stopped there for lunch at Vagabond Blues, a sandwich-coffee shop with bold coffee but overpriced food.  My chicken wrap was $12 and contained more apples and nuts than chicken.  We stayed here for a while working on the wifi as the dogs rested in the truck bed across the street.

Nina was now worried about getting back home to let her dog Tofte out.  The dog stays in the camper while she is away and we had been away for over eight hours.  A quick stop at the Wasilla Walmart, however, turned into a 45-minute stop as I ended up getting a new smartphone, an LGL63 phone (only because it was the cheapest phone with the best camera).  The store clerk volunteered to initiate the setup for this phone and I walked away with a phone that no longer stopped while using the GPS, allowed for quick access to the internet and came with several worthy news apps.  I spent the last hours awake determined to upload all the apps I use before going to bed.

It was now approaching 8pm as we returned to Nina's home.  She got Tofte ready for the night and I fiddled around with the van.  I started cleaning out the trash and tidying out the shifted items.  I had been working on it for a steady pace when Nina came by and asked me if I wanted to join her with an evening with the neighbors next door.  At first I wasn't interested, only because I really wanted to clean out the van, but I could tell she really wanted me to join her.  I ended up enjoying meeting these people, older people from Corvallis, OR up for the summer and staying at their son's water-view house.  The son was up working the Slope in Prudhoe Bay (two weeks on, two weeks off).  He's an avid big game/big predator hunter and has pelts from four grizzlies, one black bear cub, a Northern wolf and several moose racks across the living room.  The best part of the view, however, was watching the tide roll in and cover the mud flats in the three hours we were there.  We left just before midnight and the tide was still rolling in.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Day 11: Tok to Knik

A truck's engine woke me up.  It was 38F out and my ears were cold.  Time to move on!  Nothing was open in Tok, despite the many stores dedicated to the border crosser.  My destination was getting to Nina's place in Knik, 290 miles away.

The initial drive from Tok going southwest was rather nondescript as Alaska 1 travels through hilly pine forests.  Lots of unmarked ATV trails headed into these forests.  Old campers and cabins dotted the treelines. This is also known as the Glenn Highway. I drove all the way to Alaska to see pines? I asked myself, but then the landscape broke out into canyons and rivers.  Oh my.  It was hard to pay attention to the shoulderless road.  Mother moose and their babies sauntered right out of the forest line into the highway.

The two big landscapes here were the Caribou Creek and the Matanuska glacier.  I stopped at the Caribou creek recreation area to walk the dogs.  This trail, wide enough for an ATV, was heavily grooved the first half mile, but then the grooves disappeared.  I was so anxious to get out and hike that I didn't even take my bear spray with me, so I had to be extra vigilant.  The dogs didn't seem to smell anything intimidating and walked ahead of me as the trail descended to the wide creek bottom.  It was still very wet from snowmelt and recent rains and here I was still in my sockless Keens.  We went down to the creek and returned the way back to the van to resume our drive toward Knik.

Now the road was no longer boring as it ascended and descended and meandered around private property.  The distant mountains came into view.  The drive once again became motivating.  At one point it had warmed up to 56F and the sun made a brief appearance.

Another worthwhile stop along the road is the Matanuska glacier.  Its mouth is visible from the highway and it winds down the river bed.  It's an impressive view for a first-timer and I would have been interested in stopping there to explore it more, but I wanted to get closer to Anchorage and call Nina for plans.

I passed the town of Sutton with its historic park up front, rusty displays of mining equipment and its explanations.  I stopped here again to try getting wifi from the library next door, but that required a patron account.  Middle school kids from the community school were helping to plant a community garden in the backyard.  I spoke to the teacher-supervisor, Carol, who proudly explained the purpose of the community garden.  The vegetables planted would then be used in cooking classes for the kids and given back to the townspeople.  What a great concept!  Carol also suggested the just-opened washeria in town that offers $6 showers.  I took advantage of that.  I did not want to drive up to Nina's place smelling like three-day-old damp clothes and body odor.

From Sutton on going southwest the population increased.  These were nice homes nestled among the pines and not the abandoned schoolbus/campers I had seen earlier. I stopped at the first major incorporated area, Palmer, to gas up ($2.75) and grab a bite at McD's as I hadn't eaten earlier and wanted to call Nina.  My Tracphone, I discovered, does not work in Alaska as ATT/Verizon use different SIMs cards as the lower 48, but I was able to message Nina for plans.  She was home in the garden and invited me to her place.

Knik is 38 miles southeast from Palmer along either the Glenn Highway or Palmer-Wasilla Highway.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Day 10: Whitehorse to Tok, Alaska

A beautiful red fox sauntered through our site at 4:15am and the dogs went nucking futs.  It was light enough to see the animal clearly.  Another fox had sauntered through earlier.

The dogs looked so comfortable in the van.  Sadie was sharing my foam pillow and pad with me and was facing me as I awoke.  Instead of grabbing a book to read in silence, I just stared back at her, remembering the moment.  I did plenty of staring at Sara and Sammy when we'd camp in the foothills...

I didn't get them up for our morning walk until 8:20am.  We took the Millenial Trail toward the dam and walked up the hill for an overview of the Schwatka lake, a reservoir created by daming the Yukon. The trail was very sandy.  Lupines and crocuses bloomed up here.  We circled the hilltop and returned the way we came back to our site, where people were now breaking camp.  This was an easy two-mile morning walk.  There are plenty of trails available from near the dam.  The one up Grey Mountain looks like a cold hike up Mount Katahdin in Maine.

I was hungry and headed to Tim Horton's again for coffee and a sausage-cheese sandwich.  The place was crowded.  There was a table of loquacious First Nation people across from me. I'm really liking the coffee.  What I like about the dining area in all the stores I have been in is that there are USB ports and AC outlets by every table.

Now it's time to gas up and .continue toward Beaver Creek on the Alaska/Yukon border.  Weather is overcast again.  In Whitehorse at 10am it's 6C and should reach a high of 13C.

The road going north from Whitehorse quickly became rough.  The surface was more gravelly with faint yellow lines dividing the lanes.  The shoulders were 3/4 wide. The mountains faded out to more rolling hills studded with pines.  This was true wilderness.  Sixty miles away from Whitehorse I saw my first grizzly bear.  At 200 miles I saw my second. Both bears skirted the forest line and disappeared back into the forest when they noticed me.

The drive west from Whitehorse to Haines Junction wasn't that spectacular, but the views then quickly opened up as I approached the Kluane Preserve.  Here lie Canada's tallest peaks.  The valley opened up with glacial slides and mud flats.  This was an area worth exploring more, but the sky opened with fog and rain for the rest of the day.  The rivers became wider, the hillsides more eroded but it was a landscape worth admiring for its ruggedness.  People wanting to hike these snow-capped peaks would have to travel out of their way to get to them.

At one point I pulled over along the Donjek river, another wide glacial slide with a view west toward the peaks, but opted instead to continue on toward the border.  I was now getting anxious to get this drive over with.  Beaver Creek didn't offer much besides a place to park so I continued on toward Tok, the first town in Alaska.  I drove into town just at 10pm as the diners were closing.

I was relieved to be in Alaska.  Now I just had one final push to the Anchorage-Knik-Seward area.  I ended up parking behind the convenience store and  a nap turned into an overnight stay.  I had driven 404 miles.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Day Nine: Watson Lake to Whitehorse

I slept so well again, huddled in my sleeping bag.  Sadie was by my feet and Zeke was in the driver's seat when I woke up at 7am.  The town was already awake.  I knew I had a drive to complete today, but the continued rain really dampened my spirits. I stopped in at the Tempo cafe for coffee.  The men sitting in the cafe were all hardened hunters dressed in their winter hunting gear.  People who live here fulltime are people who truly love the Arctic cold.

The drive from Watson Lake north toward Whitehorse honestly wasn't that spectacular.  The highway in Yukon is of lower quality (more gravel) than in British Columbia and there are no shoulders.  The median line is barely noticeable.  The 4000' peaks are barren.  The trees are barely surviving.  The one thing I did notice was the cold.  I felt like I was up in New Hampshire in October.  More fog and drizzle followed me.

The mountains around me now were around 4000' and in Arizona would be considered hills.  Some still had snow on the top.  Locals here drive Ford or Chevy trucks.  The only foreign vehicles I see are from the tourists driving through to or from Alaska.
The one place of note was Teslin, a small community on Teslin Lake.  I stopped here to let the dogs out to pee at the rest stop marina (watching them carefully) when a First Nation park employee drove up to clean the public washrooms and replace the trash bags.  He saw my Arizona plates and asked me the dreaded question, "So what do you think about *resident trump?" He answered his question for me so all I had to do was agree with him. As a First Nation member, he's concerned about the land around him.  I respect that.  I just hope I don't become a constant target of Canadians because of trump.

I never got the man's name but I appreciated his honesty.  He saw Zeke take a dump in the grass and I promised to pick it up (I did).  A white employee would have ranted and hollered about my dog shitting on the green grass blahblahblah and citing some city code.  I was honestly surprised about his cool touch with nature.  There was a mutual respect in our interaction.

Whitehorse was another 160km away.  When I arrived to town in the early afternoon I was actually relieved.  The drive today didn't offer much for explorers unless they were hunters. The town expands along the Yukon River.  I stopped at the city park to walk the dogs along the river walk, but also needed to secure a campsite for the night at the city's campground just outside the town limit and along the Millennium River walk.  Sites here are small and CND22 for the night.  Wifi is $5 extra and showers require loonies (Canadian dollar coins).

The campsite was very quiet, but everytime someone walked by our site, the dogs barked.  At 1:15am I took them on the 2.8-mile loop trail around the Yukon river.  The trail is visible as one drives into town from the east.  It's heavily used, but at this late hour there were only three anglers on the north bank.  It was bright enough to read a book by, but once back at the van, we all crawled inside to sleep soundly.

I drove 298 miles (30 in and around town), with a total of 3416 now.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Day Eight Fort Nelson to Watson Lake

I got to witness my first Arctic twilight.  While the sun set officially at 10:19pm, twilight lasted well past midnight.  There was enough detail to see across the RV park.  The cloud cover perhaps helped keep some light out as I had no trouble sleeping, and the dogs seemed fine as well.  They barked at a few park visitors walking past the van, but they enjoyed a break from driving.  I think both ,  suffer from constant motion as neither has any appetite and I'm out of raw chicken. Both were spread out across the foam mattresses and I slept in the front, huddled in the sleeping bag. It stayed in the mid 40s all

My first mission for the day was to check the tire pressure on my tires.  All of them were low!  The recommended PSI is 36 and all were at 28 or lower.

I finally left town at 8:30am, heading north.  "You'll see lots of wildlife going north!" said the female attendant.  Two big rigs left the RV park with me.  And the attendant was right:  20 miles west of Fort Nelson, I saw my first three black bears.  Then I saw grazing elk, lots of bison, a few sauntering moose across the road, and by the end of the day a red fox galloping on a guard rail following its meal, a wolverine and some kind of cantankerous beige rodent off the road.
cI also saw the most beautiful landscape along the Alcan so far.  The stretch of road west of Fort Nelson to east of Watson Lake caused me to stop a lot to get out and explore and take some photos. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't very cooperative and it rained heavy in spurts, bringing in the low fog that hid the peaks.  This stretch consisted of various rushing rivers, glacial slides and lush green vallies.  Nature here must be brutal during the snow melt, as river banks show deep erosion, snags and rolling rocks.  I would have spent more time near Muncho Lake if the weather were more cooperative. Sheep are known to live around here.

The highway gained some elevation as the route continued west, then north.  Snow-capped peaks opened up, as well as more wide river vallies full of glacial rocks and snags.  Here is where rock slides are common, as the cliffs jut up straight off the road.  I'm sure the scenery would be more spectacular under clear skies.

The MILEPOST guide, I've discovered, does not feature all the campgrounds and cafes on the Alcan. Businesses must pay to be featured in the guide.  I found a few small rest stops along the way that were barely surviving, businesses that consisted of a few small cabins and overgrown yards that perhaps are now not attractive to travelers who want luxury resorts.  Not all of these are featured in the MILEPOST.  I stopped at the Rocky Mountain Lodge featured in the MILEPOST because it mentioned that its Kaese Spaetzli is excellent. But when I walked in the clerk, a young man from Koblenz, Germany, told me that Spaetzli is only served for dinner.  The dining area was closing up.  The biker group from yesterday had just stopped in and the server was clearing away the leftovers.  At 1:45pm the dining area was closed although operating hours were posted to 2pm.  I had to chuckle at that as this is so typical German: close the shop early if no one walks in to avoid having to stay open past 2pm.  The dining area opens again at 5pm but I didn't want to stick around to try the lodge's award-winning Spaetzli.  Business otherwise for cabins, RV sites and rooms was very steady.

The drive after the Rocky Mountain Lodge traveled through mixed forests, paralled creeks and lush vallies.  The fog kept me from seeing more.  I was looking forward to the hotsprings and approached them in the late afternoon under a constant drizzle, but was disappointed to see a long line of RVs at the gate.  Did I really want to put up with more RVs?  So many RVs take over the rest stops (although I can't blame them for taking a break from paying to park).  I'm conscious of the dogs and won't let them out when there are RVs nearby.  But when I find an empty area, yes, I will let the dogs out to stretch out and run.

I was hungry by the time I got to the hot springs, a place I had heard so much about.  But in the end the cold rain and cool temperatures in the upper 40s turned me away from the springs.  Instead, I stopped at the cafe across from the hotsprings entrance and had a buffalo cheese burger and frees.  This cafe was run by First Nation women.  Archival photos on the wall described the history of the area.  I ate what I could and gave the dogs the last 1/3 of the very juicy meat.

I made Watson Lake my destination for the night.  Just  before entering the town I stopped at the "Air Force Lodge" that caught my attention, but could't stay there because no pets are allowed in the building (and I wouldn't want to pay $85 anyway).  The building is a small lodge with 30 rooms that was transported in parts from Washington state to help with the construction of the Alcan.  The new owner, Micheal, is a German from Bremerhaven and we struck up a conversation.  He said there is a very active German/Swiss community in the Yukon, and this in part attracts tourists from Germany and Switzerland.  These German-Swiss came here because land is cheap and it's more remote. Several streets in town have German names.  This is something I'd be interested in learning more about.

The town of Watson Lake itself did not impress me, although I can appreciate it for a small, tight-knit community.  All the hotels and restaurants were on the south side of the highway.  There's the Bighorn Hotel that allows pets, the A Nice Hotel (!) and a few diners.  But the big attraction in Watson Lake is the Signpost Park, a park that was innocently started by a "lonely GI" who posted a sign with his hometown and mileage to that town on a post.  From that first sign to Illinois is now a crowded corner park of 86,000+ signs and license plates from around the world, many from Germany.  It was 9:30pm when I stopped here and still very light out.  A family and their dog Molly was out romping around.  Now people leave signs with their names and arrival dates to Watson Lake in the park, which somehow takes away from the original concept.  I did find signs for Benson, Sahuarita, Willcox, Arizona, as well as Augsburg, Hamburg and Berlin. 

The sky was still overcast as I settled in the for the night.  As expected, I experienced my first true Arctic twilight being so far north.  At midnight I drove to Wye lake in the center of town and could still see detail.  Even the dogs were confused.  At 1am I took them for a short walk down the street where I was parked and could clearly see them both.  As for me, I had no trouble falling asleep as I had a long day.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Day Seven: Grand Prairie to Fort Nelson

It was a peaceful morning.  Despite the overnight low of upper 40s, I slept good.  The sun was out when I finally woke up.  Blue sky!  The town looked nicer in sunlight, but I didn't stick around for another aimless drive around town.  I continued on CND43 West toward Dawson Creek, 80 miles away.  And when I arrived in town at 8:30am local time, it was like coming to a party.  It's not a big town, but it has all the amenities.  I stopped at a Tim Horton's for coffee and then in town posed by one of several plagues and signs designating Dawson Creek as "Mile 0 of the Alaskan Highway."  It was 55F and a promise to a good day of travel.  It was a relief to see the horizon again.  I could see snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Dawson Creek is an agricultural town.  Plowed fields are on either side of the road outside of town.  Yellow canola fields add some color. The town itself stretches along the Alcan (CND97), but I didn't linger for long.  Once on the official road, I wanted to get started.  Weather was lovely, sky was clear blue, and it was warming up.  I would go as far as I could but stop to see all the sights. Just being on the ALASKA highway got me motivated.  Kevin would have enjoyed this stretch.

I wasn't on the road for long when I stopped at the first historical sign, the Kiskatinaw Curved Bridge, a 10km (6.2 mile) detour to the last remaining wooden trestle bridge built for the AlCan.  It's 531 feet long. The other ones have been torn down or damaged.  I had to face off one black one-horn bull that was off the side of the road, but no battle ensued.

I was the only one parked at this bridge.  I walked briefly on it but then saw another vehicle coming my way on the bridge.  It was a silver 2007 Caravan whose driver had the same intent: to get out and photograph the site.  The driver was 60-year-old Mary who was driving that used Caravan from Anchorage down the AlCan, across Canada east to her home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  She had spent time in Bethel, Alaska as a surgical nurse and driving the Alcan was on her bucket list.  Like me, she was doing it herself and enjoying it. She bought the van in Anchorage for $5000.  So far all she's had to do on it is replace the #2 sparkplug.  At night she sleeps in her van.

Turns out Mary is not only a nurse, but a talented poet.  "I write campfire songs at night!" she admitted to me, and showed me her handwritten notes.  She had collected all the brochures from the Alcan and had so much enthusiasm for her journey that it got me motivated as well.  "Make sure you stop in the hot springs and Watson Lake!" All the brochures she had neatly organized in a plastic bin in the passenger seat, ready to share with her family back home.  She took photos and videos of the trip. I really enjoyed talking to this woman, but we had to cut our chat short because more people were driving by and stopping as well and there wasn't too much room for more than four cars.

The highway today was in good shape.  It's two lanes at times with a median in the middle, but one lane in either direction except uphill when there is a passing lane in the more remote sections.  There are several slo-mos at construction sights but nothing that requires traffic to be stopped.  Sections of the road's frostheaves are getting repaired.

I wasn't on the road for long when on the station I learned that Adam West, the original actor for Batman in the 1960s, has died of leukemia at age 88.  I was a first grader when I was in love with Batman, always nervous about what villain would harm my hero, always forgetting that Batman had his indispensable utility belt that got him out of any trouble.

Fort St John was the only other significant town on my drive.  Since It's only 47 miles north of Dawson Creek, I didn't bother to stop, although I should have gassed up.  I was just under a half a tank when I passed the Bucking Horse RV park and restauran reminding drivers that the next service station is 178 km away in Fort Nelson.  I decided I needed to get in line and gas up.  That cost me $52.44!

A group of Harley-Davidson riders were finishing a meal in the restaurant.  I overheard one of the guides speaking to the eight others in German.  That caught my attention, so I asked one of the leather-clad men if the entire group was German.  I was speaking to Nick, a retired homicide detective now living in West Palm Beach ("and loving it!" he stressed).  Nick now works for Motorcycles across the World, a touring company he leads guides with.  The company then contracts local suppliers with the gear and lodging.  In this case, it was Eaglerider Motocycles, and the sag support was already waiting for everyone to saddle up and continue north.  Nick had first ridden the entire AlCan in 1995 when it was mostly gravel and "hellish," but since then he's ridden many sections of the route as a guide.  We had to bid farewell when the group had to continue north.  Now the sky was looking dark again, and the cold wind picked up, just like it did yesterday. I'm glad I was in a van and not on a bike.
Once north of Fort St John, the road meandered up and down gentle slopes, past cliff rocks and crossing creeks, but generally lined on both sides by a mixed forest of aspen, lodgepole pine, spruce.  There are swaths of burned or dead trees, too, and in other sections it's clear that the trees are young and were planted to replace logged ones.  Nick's riders were in front of me for 30 miles, riding at a steady speed until the rain kicked in and everyone pulled over to secure their gear before continuing on to Fort Nelson.

There were many dirt road going off from the Alcan, on either side of the road.  Most of these roads are service roads for gas companies and their compressor sites.  Once the rain clouds returned in the afternoon, there once again wasn't much to see besides the road in front of me.  I made Fort Nelson my stop for the night, rented a spot at the Blue Bell RV Park ($20/site), right next door to a Motel6 advertising rooms for $74.99.  I was the first one in the RV park and grabbed site #3 as the owners told me that has the strongest wifi reception.  They were correct.  I had a nice sit-down meal at the town's Boston Pizza, a Canadian chain based out of Calgary, Alberta.  I had a chicken schwarma pizza, a tasty gourmet pizza.  There were no left overs! I'd stop at the Boston Pizza again because it also has pasta, salads and sandwiches for sale.  My server was Tamara, a Fort Nelson resident for 23 years. Originally from Edmonton, she moved here as a child when her father got a job drilling oil nearby, but since the 2008 recession the oil jobs never returned.

I planned my stay in town well.  By the time I got done with my shower, two more vehicles came in for the night.  After my meal a few more had pulled in, and after my five-mile walk with the dogs across the Simpson trail (also known as the Demonstration Forest Trail), the sites were filling up. The park wasn't very scenic, but the showers were hot and the place was quiet.  In fact, the entire town was quiet.  Fort Nelson may not be a scenic tourist town, but it has everything a traveler needs, from cheap to resort-style hotel rooms, a Subway sandwich shop and an A&W Rootbeer store and several bars. Every town in Canada seems to have a Super8 chain!

Sunset for Fort Nelson was 10:19pm, but by 10:48 there was still light, with a steady 49F.  Rain is forecasted on and off the next five days.

I drove 377.8 miles today, and a grand total of 2863.1  About 150 miles of that are in-and-around miles.  Tomorrow I need to make sure I get my tires checked for proper air pressure.  The front left tire looks low and my low pressure light came on north of St John.

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...Put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit one more time...

(R. Meisner, D. Henley, G. Frey)


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