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You have probably figured out by our lack of postings that the “Big 2014 Alaska” trip, for all intents and purposes, is over. We arrived at our cabin/second home in rural New Mexico in late September. We thought we would venture out from the cabin on a short trip or two since we planned to stay through the end of December, but other than a few hikes and a little back road exploring, it just didn’t happen. We still have to get back to Florida, but that will mainly be a road trip visiting friends and family along the way.

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Our cabin is an ongoing project and we just keep finding things to do! One of the first projects was to import a little Inuit cultural influence in the form of an “Inuckshuk”.  We were introduced to these in Western Canada and immediately decided we needed one of our own. The Inuit used them for various purposes including navigational markers and indicators of a place of significance.

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We had tentatively planned to go to Moab, Bryce Canyon, and the White Rim Trail but ultimately decided to save those for next year. With winter quickly approaching and no trips planned we decided to winterize  the trailer and put it away for the winter. It was a bittersweet moment…

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… but a timely one!

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We had been planning this trip with Alaska as the focal point for many years. Sometimes you worry the experience will not equal the anticipation but that was definitely NOT the case. This trip delivered! Look for some “best of” photo compilations in the near future. We hope you have enjoyed following along on our journey and rest assured there will be more in the future.

For now it’s back to Florida and I have some interesting vehicle projects on the agenda.

Stay tuned…

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As we worked our way south through Colorado toward our cabin in New Mexico, I was thinking about detouring over to Durango to ride the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge railroad. Rather than go that far out of our way, I decided to settle for the Cumbres & Toltec railroad from Antonito, CO to Chama, NM, which was on our route. When I mentioned the train ride, Pamala’s response was “And you want to do this why ?”. To which I replied “It’s an old-fashioned steam train ride through the mountains, hanging off of cliffs, why wouldn’t I?”. She once again saw the error of her ways and we booked the ride. We booked the cheap seats rather than the “period correct”, full service car, which turned out to be a good plan since I spent the vast majority of the time enjoying the views from the open gondola car. The weather turned out perfect for the day and the Aspen trees were changing so even Pamala ended up enjoying the ride.

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Please bear with me a bit as I do some site reconstruction.

I know you subscribers are getting bombarded with new post notifications. I know it’s annoying but I couldn’t figure out a way to avoid that. It had to do with converting “pages” to “posts”, creating new menus and some other WordPress idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately a few of your comments may have been lost in the shuffle, again, I couldn’t figure out how to avoid that. Please don’t let that discourage you from commenting in the future as we enjoy hearing from our readers.

The new menus and drop downs should be easy to use and I hope you are able to find everything you are looking for. If you have any feedback on the new structure please post a comment here or shoot me an email at jim@backcountryvehicles.com

Thanks

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What else could explain noxious sulfur fumes escaping from the ground, boiling water above and below the surface you’re walking on, boiling water shooting into the air and boiling mud? Yes…Boiling Mud! Not bubbling, boiling. I kept telling Pamala “there’s something wrong with that”. I can still smell the sulfur just thinking about it.

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Yellowstone National Park has some of the most spectacular scenery you will ever find. Rugged mountains, fast and slow moving rivers, open plains, abundant wildlife, famous and not so famous geysers, majestic waterfalls, and areas of toxic wasteland. And don’t forget “The Mud Volcano”. The entire park is sitting on top of a super-volcano, which in conjunction with long departed glaciers, sculpted it’s landscape. Exploring Yellowstone was mostly a calming, awe-inspiring experience, but being in the  vicinity of the “thermal features” was a little unsettling. Pamala said “the Devil left his mark”.

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All in all, we spent an enjoyable four days there with sunny skies and 70+degree temperatures for three of those days and low 30’s and snow on the last day. It was equally beautiful either way and well worth the visit.

After the the repairs in Glennallen were complete, we were anxious to hit the road again, partly because signs of autumn were appearing and partly because our time in Alaska was coming to a close. Alaska had always been sort of the “primary goal” of the trip, and everything there and back would be “icing on the cake”. So it was time to move on to the next chapter of the trip.

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We very much enjoyed our trip through British Columbia and the Yukon on the way to Alaska, so we were both a little surprised that neither of us were looking forward to crossing Canada again. Perhaps because we now had first hand knowledge of the length of time required to reach the lower 48 through Canada, not to mention fuel and food costs being higher.  But we forged ahead, and vowing to make the best of it, we headed toward Chicken, Alaska.

“Beautiful Downtown Chicken” home of the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever eaten.

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After visiting Chicken, we crossed into Canada via the Top of the World Highway and made our way south towards Whitehorse where we joined, once again, The Alaska Highway. On our way North, we joined the Alaska Highway via the Cassiar Highway just west of Watson Lake and drove to the end in Delta Junction, so now we would complete the Alaska Highway to mile zero in Dawson Creek.

A view from The Top of the World Highway

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No, we didn’t drive it. I’ll be back!

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Everything was again very scenic and enjoyable until we reached Fort Nelson, then it took a turn for the worst. The oil, gas, and logging industries made the drive from Fort Nelson to Calgary a very heavily trafficked, large truck congested experience. On top of that, we noticed an increase in roadside litter and graffiti after entering Alberta. Rest areas, trash cans, roadside pit toilets and pullouts virtually disappeared. Jasper and Banff National Parks were the only redeeming qualities we could find in this part of Canada. In short, unless you feel like you have to drive the entire Alaska Highway as I did, I would suggest skipping this part.

Banff National Park

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This is me at the end of the rainbow NOT finding financial security!

It was bound to happen. We’ve had a few mechanical issues to deal with on this trip, but nothing that left us disabled on the side of the road. Luckily, when it did happen, it was only the trailer and not the truck. We were thirty-five miles east of Glennallen, Alaska, eastbound, when I looked in my driver’s side mirror and saw smoke billowing out from the trailer fenderwell and my left trailer wheel sticking out a few inches and cockeyed!

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Once I surveyed the damage, we dropped the trailer and high tailed it back to Glennallen to the NAPA store. The problem was that even though I was driving way too fast for the road, we figured we would have a five minute buffer before the store closed. While I was driving like a bat out of hell, Pamala was on the phone pleading with Gary at the NAPA store not to close before we got there. We arrived at NAPA just in the nick of time and Gary was very helpful but they didn’t have all the parts I needed. He called around  town (population ~ 500) and found out that Scott, owner of Glennallen Fuel and Auto Service next door had the other bearing I needed. Scott cleaned up the brake drum and changed the bearing races for me. All in all, I still only had enough parts to limp back to Glennallen but not enough for a permanent repair.  Scott said we could order the parts from Anchorage in the morning and have them by five o-clock the next day. So back to the side of the road we went to patch it together.

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We drove slowly and carefully back towards town and camped on the outskirts. The next morning, we drove back to Glennallen Fuel and Scott ordered all the parts I needed to completely rebuild both sides of the axle, just as a precaution. I offered to pay Scott to do the work but he said he was slammed that day and offered me a concrete pad to park on so I could do the repairs myself.  So I spent the morning and early afternoon prepping and waiting for parts.

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The parts arrived almost precisely at five o-clock and in a little more than a hour later, we were ready to roll. As it worked out, being “only” 35 miles from a parts store and helpful people was great since we were headed for the “Top of the World Highway” and some very remote country when it happened.

Again many thanks to Gary at NAPA and Scott at Glennallen Fuel; both made the situation a lot easier to deal with!

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Traveling to Alaska, I expected to meet people from all over the United States and the world since Alaska is a destination for people worldwide. I camped next to a couple who journeyed here from Austria. I met a group of four who hailed from Australia at Tetlin National Forest. A couple traveling on motorcycle from Brussels; another couple on motorcycles from New Zealand. Closer to home, I ran into a cyclist from Salt Lake City, Utah en route to Denali National Park. It occurred to me that my world is smaller than I realized when checking in at the Chena Hot Springs Resort outside of Fairbanks, one of the employees told me that she is from Cape Coral, Florida which is our sister city. My world continued to shrink when Pamala met and went running with a fellow traveler in Cooper Landing, Alaska that is from our neighboring county in Florida. While in Canada, a couple saw our Florida license plate in Jasper National Park and introduced themselves. They lived 30 miles south of us in Naples, Florida before moving to northern Florida. Even the proprietor of “Beautiful Downtown Chicken” in Chicken Alaska (year round population between 17 and 37) had family ties to Fort Myers.

The most interesting small world encounter during this trip happened in Wasilla, AK. Bear with me as I give a little background: several years ago a guy named Rob came to work for me in Fort Myers, Florida while I was an Air Traffic Controller. He was prior military as was his dad. As we were talking, I mentioned that I was stationed on Adak in the Alaskan Aleutian islands while serving in the Navy twenty-five years prior. Rob told me he had also been there as a small child when his dad was stationed there. Rob couldn’t remember exact dates but it seemed as if he and his family and I had just missed each other. Over the next few years Rob and I became friends and we participated in several athletic events together where I got to know his parents Bob and Rhonda, as they were often there to support their son. Bob was also an Air Traffic Controller in the Navy and we talked briefly about our military service and our time on Adak but never in detail.

Fast forward a few years, Bob and Rhonda moved from Fort Myers to Wasilla, AK earlier this year. We stopped in for a visit during our Alaska travels and they graciously hosted us for the evening and fed us an awesome home cooked meal as well as sharing their laundry facilities and spare bedroom. The next morning Pamala was sleeping in and as Bob cooked breakfast, we got to talking more in detail about our Navy years. I mentioned how when I left Adak what disarray the facility was in, both militarily and Air Traffic-wise. Come to find out Bob knew exactly how bad it was as he was sent there as the new commanding officer for the very purpose of straightening it out! It seems he got there within two months of my leaving. It truly is a small world.

I know Bob and Rhonda are readers of this blog, so thanks again for the hospitality and I hope we can reciprocate next time you are in Fort Myers.

Our gracious hosts

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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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