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All posts for the month August, 2014

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Because I had seen plenty of black and brown bears already, when the subject of visiting Denali National Park arose, I was uncommitted about going. Jim, as well as other people I had met in Alaska, encouraged the trip. Jim has fond memories of Denali based on a visit during his teenage years. He remembers standing on a viewing platform at what is now the Eielson Visitors Center and viewing the entire mountain from base to peak, a rare occurrence I am told due to clouds frequently obscuring the peak. (Frequent clouds in Alaska?) Jim also remembers the 66 mile drive into the park in his parent’s vehicle and seeing a variety of animals in abundance.

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Time stands still for no one and this adage definitely applies for Denali National Park. Currently, private vehicles are not allowed past mile marker 15 or beyond your campground. The wilderness area of the park begins well beyond mile 15. Of course we could have hung around until September and applied for the lottery, as the lucky winners of the lottery are allowed to drive private vehicles through out the park. But since we didn’t plan to be in Alaska in September (I can’t even imagine what fall would be like here) or were willing to put much faith in winning the lottery, we were left with three options: hiking, biking or paying for a tour on the park bus system.

We opted for the minimum length tour bus ride of 6 hours (maximum tour is 12 hours) because neither one of us wanted to spend more time on the bus than required and got off the bus at its turn around point and hiked quite a distance deeper into the park, fording river tributaries and enjoying the majestic views.

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We knew that we could catch any outbound bus back to the park’s entrance. Prior to getting off the bus, the bus driver reviewed the rules of engagement while on foot in the park. Of course the main concern in this part of the country is bear encounters.

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Rule number 1: never approach a bear. “what sane person would?”

Rule number 2: if a bear is accidentally encountered, back away slowly but don’t run.  “accidentally? what other way would an encounter occur?”

Rule number 3: if the bear charges you, stand still. It is likely bluffing and may veer off at the last minute. “honestly, who could overcome the instinct to run in this situation?”

Rule number 4: if you are attacked by a black bear, fight back. If you are attacked by a grizzly bear, play dead for several minutes because the bear will hang around to ensure you are indeed dead. If after several minutes of playing dead the bear does not retreat, then fight back! “ I would like to meet the person who has successfully survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead or fighting back. If attacked by a grizzly, if you aren’t armed with a gun or bear spray, say your prayers because your life will likely end! I am sure people who have successfully survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead were indeed praying.”

According to our guide, there have been no recent bear attacks in the park. In fact, deaths in the park occur each year from attempts to climb North America’s highest peak, the Denali Mountain, as opposed to animal attacks. Nevertheless, we carried our bulky container of bear spray because we didn’t want to be the ones to change those statistics.

We saw grizzly bears while on the bus and not while hiking, thank God. One of the park’s patrons encountered a grizzly bear while he was hiking but spotted him in time to back away. He wisely retreated a quarter of a mile or so and caught the bus that we happened to be on. As the bus progressed down the road, the bus was stopped when we arrived at the bear’s location for photos.

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In addition, we saw caribou while hiking; arctic ground squirrel and moose while on the bus. Unfortunately we did not see other animals that inhabit the grounds of the park including dall sheep, wolves, coyotes, foxes, pika and snowshoe hare.

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I don’t regret my decision to visit the park. Although the animal sightings weren’t as Jim remembered and we were relegated to a tour bus, I enjoyed being in the open wilderness and was grateful that the sun was shining with clear skies. In Alaska, I have quickly learned to appreciate a clear, cloudless day because they are so few and far between. Yet I know that the frequent precipitation contributes to the beauty of this great state!

Multiple days were spent in the city of Fairbanks because it was the preparation point for the trip to Purdhoe Bay and the recuperation location upon returning from Purdhoe Bay.  The weather was great; 80 degrees, no rain and lots of sunshine the entire time after our return from Purdhoe Bay!  While there, we attended the Denakkanaaga and Tanana Chiefs Conference Cultural Program where we received information about the culture of Alaskan tribes through music, storytelling in native languages (translated for the audience) and dance. It was informative and entertaining. I especially liked dancing with the performers when the audience was invited to the stage.

tribe distributionMap of Historical Tribe Distribution in Alaska

performers Native Dancers

Chena Hot Springs was summoning me so Jim and I went to the Chena Hot Springs Resort and in addition to spending time in the soothing hot springs Rock Lake and getting a waterfall massage (aah), we visited the Ice Museum. The sculptures were amazing. We decided to forgo renting a suite in the ice museum for $600 per night, though. Sleeping on an ice bed inside an ice building did not appeal to me, notwithstanding the fur bedding they promised to provide.

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ice barThe building was equipped with an ice bar and ice stools!

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Appletini served in an ice glass, anyone?

The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is located in Fairbanks and is a must see for any car enthusiast or anyone that can appreciate excellent restorative workmanship. I thought electric cars were a recent phenomenon but learned that the first electric car was manufactured in the early 1900s. I was also amazed at how LARGE some the early automobiles were, and I thought the cars in the 1970s were boats on wheels!

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I did find a couple of sporty little cars hiding here and there!

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Jim always says he was born later then he should have been.

 

 

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I’m not sure why but I very much dislike the term bucket list, so I will just say the Dalton Highway was on my to do list for a long time. I lived in Anchorage, AK for two years during high school in ’78 and ’79 and was vaguely aware there was a road to Prudhoe Bay as they had recently finished the Alaska Pipeline. The full length of the road to Deadhorse was not open to the public until 1994, long after I had departed from the area. I can’t say exactly when or how I became aware that it was open for civilian travel, but the concepts of it being one of only two roads north of the Arctic Circle on the North American continent as well as ending at the northernmost point in North America reachable by road captured my interest. I realize that an untold number of people using many different forms of transportation have made this trip over the last twenty years, but in some respects it still seems to me like a small group.

In my opinion, the most important thing to remember about the Dalton Highway is that it’s about the journey and not the destination. At least not the destination in the traditional sense. Sure, it is the northernmost point reachable by road and all but upon reaching the end of the road you are greeted by a giant industrial complex designed to house 3,000 to 6,000 oil field workers, not a typical tourist destination or scenic wonder. There is no town, there are no campgrounds, and there is not much of anything resembling a habitable place. Even if you pay BP to have a security person give you a bus tour to the Arctic ocean you end up standing on a bleak, man-made gravel beach built by the oil companies. Not exactly tourist nirvana. But if you’re going to go to all the trouble to get that close to the Arctic Ocean, I recommend you take the tour and dip your toes.

The trip up and back is a different story. The climate and topography are ever-changing, rewarding you with spectacular scenery, wide open spaces, and wildlife. Yeah the road is rough, very rough, but in the end I say well worth it. And yes, we took the trailer all the way up and back. Oddly enough we did not see any other camp trailers there. Go figure.

A collection of signs at the beginning of the Dalton Highway

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Impressive hunk of rock!

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The Alaska Pipeline is visible for most of the trip

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This reminds me of a freight train headed uphill

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The obligatory Arctic Circle pic

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Meet Sho. No matter how tough or adventurous you think you are, someone out there is more so. Sho told us he was covering 20 miles a day! He started his journey at mile zero on the Alaska Highway in British Columbia. When this picture was taken he was well past the Arctic Circle and about to climb Atigun pass. On our way back the next day he was several miles north of the pass and still walking. He calculated it would take him another week to week and a half to get to Deadhorse.  Bear in mind once you leave Coldfoot there are no services for 240 miles until you reach Deadhorse. Tougher than me!

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Our “campsite” in Deadhorse. Actually just a man-made levee between the road and the Sag River. 36 degrees and 27 degrees wind chill!

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I guess it helps to have a sense of humor to live here.

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Notice who has their feet in the water and who doesn’t. And after all that talk of “dipping my toes in every body of water I see”.

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Caribou in Deadhorse

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Musk Oxen just south of Deadhorse

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The long journey back made longer waiting for a pilot car.

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Success!

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Jim  Jim at the Dalton Highway Junction

For years Jim talked about driving the Dalton Highway and visiting Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. So of course when we planned our journey here, it was definitely on the itinerary. The morning that we set off to begin the two-day drive from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, I was very excited and anticipated a great adventure. The drive was challenging but I didn’t mind the poor road conditions, road construction and tractor-trailer rigs creating dust clouds so thick that they impaired visibility because the destination, I thought, was going to be worth all that and more.

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I was pleasantly surprised that the sun was shining and the temperature was balmy as we began our trip. We drove to the Yukon River and had a wild-caught salmon taco lunch at the Yukon River Camp that we enjoyed immensely.  At mile marker 98 of the Dalton Highway, we stopped for a half-mile hike across the alpine tundra (good thing we had both purchased rain boots) to reach the Finger Mountain tor.  From there, we drove to the Arctic Circle.  I was a happy camper when it was 73 degrees Fahrenheit there.  The trip was progressing great so far.

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We drove a total of eight hours before stopping for the night just past Coldfoot at Marion Creek Campground. The next day, we continued our trip down the Dalton and enjoyed the changing landscape. We saw majestic green mountains, rocky mountains, avalanche zones, a glacial lake, and struggling spruce trees due to the permafrost. We crossed the Continental Divide at Atigun Pass and saw vivid bluffs.

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I noticed a distinct temperature change after we went through Atigun Pass. The beautiful views began to erode and the undulating terrain gave way to flat, desolate land. Ugly, cold, barren, and not fit for human habitation. That was my first impression of Deadhorse when we arrived and it all deteriorated from there.

We camped on the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River the night of our arrival. The camper was beaten non-stop by the howling wind, which only added to the already 36 degree Fahrenheit temperature (wind chill 27 degrees) we were experiencing. Did I mention, there are no trees AT ALL for miles to assist in blocking the wind that comes off the river? Even though there are 22 hours of daylight this time of the year, there was absolutely no sunshine AT ALL, not even a glimmer while we were there.

In order to gain access to the Arctic Ocean, we had to pay for a guided tour because the oil company, BP, won’t allow unauthorized personnel on their property. So the next morning, we were escorted behind BP’s guarded gate, and the tour guide/security officer drove us around the yard and pointed to buildings and recited facts which could be obtained from Wikipedia. The tour culminated with a stop at the Arctic Ocean with the caveat that no swimming was allowed, as if I would swim in that freezing cold water!

artic oceanThe Arctic Ocean with driftwood from Canada on its shore and a pipeline to the left

We left immediately after the tour. I did not want to spend an additional minute there in spite of the fact that I knew I had to endure the same two-day drive back to Fairbanks. To drive the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse appears to be a right of passage for overlanders, but to say it was anti-climatic for me would be an understatement. I don’t understand the pull it has for many. Perhaps had I known the trip to Purdhoe Bay was about the journey more so than the destination, I could have altered my expectations. As it stands, I feel I should have checked into the Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks while Jim fulfilled his dream of driving the Dalton Highway and experiencing Deadhorse. When we were in preparation mode for the trip, if I had the foresight to have questioned the wives of some of the men we met in Fairbanks who had just returned from their voyage up and down the notorious Dalton, I would have a different story to tell, filled with minutiae about my body massages and relaxing soaks in the hot spring.

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After visiting what is considered Southeast Alaska (Hyder, Haines and Juneau are in southeast Alaska), we reached the interior of Alaska. Our first stop was the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge.  Their brochure says it best, Tetlin is a dynamic landscape of forests, wetlands, tundra, lakes, mountains, and glacial rivers bounded by the snowy peaks of the Alaska Range. Our first evening there we walked to Deadman’s Lake and watched for moose and enjoyed the sunset as it reflected off the water.

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On our second day,  we discovered that we were surrounded by wild berries and went on a berry picking quest. Unlike national parks, wildlife refuges encourage visitors to enjoy the bounty of the forest; therefore, berry picking is not only allowed, but encouraged. We searched for but couldn’t find enough of the ever elusive strawberries. They are tiny, but have very potent flavor to compensate for their small size. The second most difficult to find is the salmonberry, which is a berry previously unknown to me. There are also crowberries , cranberries, and most abundant, wild blueberries there.

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I have purchased wild blueberries and complained about their price in comparison to cultivated blueberries. After picking them, I now know why they are so costly. All the wild berries are so much smaller than the cultivated berries and as the adage goes you pay with your time or your money and in this case, we paid with our time.  The two of us spent two hours harvesting berries and this was the total sum of our effort:

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Nevertheless, we enjoyed our wild harvest in multiple culinary delights.

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pancakes  cereal

We decided it would be best not to eat this hallucinogenic mushroom so we left it undisturbed.

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Along the way to the interior of Alaska we took a 3 day side trip to Haines with a one day fast-catamaran trip to Juneau. After we left the area, I realized we didn’t take any pictures in Haines. I guess the fact that it rained the entire time might have something to do with it! We did, however, take some pictures of wildlife from the Haines Highway, wildlife from the boat and a few sights in Juneau.

Mama and cubs next to the road

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Our ride to Juneau   How the other half travels!

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Eldred Rock Lighthouse is for sale if you really want to get away from it all!

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Juneau

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Kayakers by the glacier

Nugget Falls next to the glacier

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Predator  Potential dinner

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A harbor in Juneau  Cold wet day to be fishing!

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Humpback whales “bubble-net fishing”.

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Sea Lions  Harbor Seals

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The road conditions on the Cassiar Highway were never good, but as we traveled toward Yukon, the road conditions deteriorated further. The frost heaves made driving feel like like you were in an airplane experiencing turbulence, and the lack of any markings made it hard to anticipate the abnormalities. The last fifty or so miles of this road were abysmal! Shortly after entering Yukon, we joined the Alaska Highway and the road conditions improved drastically, allowing us to relax and watch for animals instead of the sorry excuse for a road. I’ve been on lots of dirt roads that were better!

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We are traveling later into the evening than we did when we first began this trip. Getting to bed at a reasonable hour is difficult because it remains light for well over 16 hours here. We find ourselves taking sunset, bridge and rainbow pictures late into the evening. Due to the late sunset, our circadian rhythm is off and we often sleep until noon.

Sunset at about 10:40

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Our timing was good today because bears were actively foraging for their evening meal. We saw a few others but didn’t get pictures.

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Pamala has continued her practice of dipping her toes into bodies of water. On this cold and windy day, we stopped at a campground next to an incredibly blue lake, albeit with whitecaps, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I dared Pamala to take a swim, but a quick toe-dip was all she would do. Wimp! Because of the cold and wind, I had to chop wood and build a fire to keep the Florida girl warm and happy.

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Off to Haines and Juneau…

It was cloudy and chilly but bright when we arrived in Stewart, British Columbia. Because we had plans for outdoor activities, we hoped the weather would improve during our three-day stay. We camped in Stewart, a small community of about 600 that borders Hyder, Alaska, a self-proclaimed ghost town that was our intended destination. In an effort to maximize our time, we set up camp, ate dinner and were off to Hyder, approximately four miles from Stewart. It felt really weird to enter into the US from Canada and not have to stop at a border crossing. I guess the US Government’s position is if someone wants to enter and stay in an end-of-the-road community of 89 people, you are welcome to do so. Yes, if you turn left instead of right, the road literally ends in the ocean in Hyder!

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Note the low-lying clouds and lack of sunshine

Hyder is known for grizzly and black bear sightings as they fish in the streams for salmon. We had read that the best times for sightings were early mornings and late evenings. We arrived at eight in the evening with camera in hand and high hopes of photographing a bear or two. After waiting and watching for 30 minutes or more, our enthusiasm was beginning to fade because the mosquitoes were the only ones eating dinner and unfortunately we were their dinner. Just as we were about to give up, a lone grizzly bear appeared from under the bridge and came lumbering down stream, stopping to check intermittently for fish that might be hiding in the brush at the edge of the stream. We were safely positioned on a boardwalk above the stream as the bear walked right past us, enabling me to get a great face shot. What great timing!

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So it was back to British Columbia for the night, but not before going through customs in order to re-enter Canada. We needed to regroup for our return trip to Alaska the next day in order to view the Salmon Glacier. We awoke to another overcast day with rain in the forecast. So with raincoats and camera in hand, we set off to Alaska. After leaving Hyder we discovered that the glacier is actually in British Columbia because as we were driving, a sign on the side of the road indicated that we were re-entering Canada. Off to the right a few feet back was a small bench mark that had United States embossed on it. It is a different world in these parts!

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Along the way, we stopped at the “ice cube” playground. Large ice chunks were strewn throughout the river basin after the seasonal ice damn upriver broke. Jim was “called” by the surrounding mountains to return to his ancestral home.  For me, it was play time.

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Finally, we reached the Salmon Glacier and it was indeed worth the 25 mile drive into the wilderness.

Salmon Glacier

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The next day we woke up to another cloudy day, but along with the clouds, we had to deal with rain as we packed up to leave camp. It rained all day with only hints of sunshine that was quickly overtaken by clouds. There was a metaphorical ray of sunshine in my day, however. What appeared to be a mirage in the distance was a black bear walking down the highway directly toward us.  He hung around long enough for me to get a couple of pictures before he meandered out of sight into the woods.

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Sunshine or not, I left the Stewart/Hyder area feeling satisfied that my mission to see bears and glaciers was accomplished. I can’t help but wonder though, does the sun ever shine there?

After leaving Clearwater, we explored the Falls Grey Wilderness Area of B.C. Waterfalls and raging rivers were impossible to avoid, not that we tried. Even after seeing hundreds of waterfalls (I am not exaggerating), we couldn’t resist each one we encountered, especially when we could obtain close access to them. Unfortunately forest fires in B.C. were generating a lot of smoke in the area.

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By the end of the day, Jim was lured to this spot by the river to contemplate the beauty of nature, with a little help from an Irish Death Ale, courtesy of Peter Roesler.

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The next day, we encountered an ancient forest in British Columbia that is a rare inland rainforest. It is one of a kind in Canada. The Red Cedar trees are gigantic in this forest and were due to be cut for lumber before this area was discovered by a botany student and protected as a Canadian national treasure. Some of these trees are reported to be between 1,000-2,000 years old.  Mind boggling that they survived droughts, forest fires and the good old chain saw!

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It wasn’t long before we were on the Cassiar Highway bound for Hyder, Alaska. Like much of British Columbia, this stretch of the highway was full of snow-capped mountains and yes, more snow-melt waterfalls.

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