Some of the rigs we saw on our “Big 2014 Alaska Trip”.
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.
I stifled a moan when Jim suggested going to Rocky Mountain National Park. My immediate response was how many tree-covered mountains must we see? Were Denali, Glacier, and Yellowstone not representative enough? I love nature and enjoyed visiting the National Parks we patronized very much, but did not feel Rocky Mountain would be different enough from the others to warrant the time and expense of going there. Yet because Rocky Mountain was on Jim’s list for this trip, I acquiesced. So we traveled through the wind-blown prairie of Wyoming and encountered 19 degree temperatures and snow in order to reach the park. I must admit that I had awful flash-backs of the trip to the North Slope.
I was distracted from my flash-backs when we encountered multiple herds of antelope en route and immediately rewarded when entering the park by the presence of a large bull elk. A family of marmot and a herd of elk entertained us while we were at the visitor’s center. Upon reaching the park, I was pleased with the more temperate weather, since the park is located in the north-central region of Colorado. More on this later!
Perhaps because we were at the park on a Sunday, it was very crowded. We had to bypass many of the scenic turn-outs due to lack of available parking for RVs, but we were still able to experience, I think, the essence of the park. Driving the Trail Ridge Road through the park was quite an experience. It is the highest, continuous paved road in the U.S. reaching 12, 183 feet of elevation, and based on my declining level of physical fitness, I would never have reached the peak by foot. It is quite a steep climb up.
I discovered that Rocky Mountain is different from the other parks we visited in that it has three distinct zones: the montane, subalpine and alpine zones. The montane zone is the lowest (below 9000 feet) and warmest zone. Most of the animals are found here and this zone is indeed where we saw the bull elk. The subalpine zone is between 9000 and 12000 feet of elevation and is directly below the treeline of the park while the alpine zone is naturally above the treeline. When we reached the alpine zone, the weather was quite chilly (code phrase for unbearably cold) due to the elevation and lack of trees to block the wind. All the zones are beautiful, although I tend to favor the areas with trees over the rugged, treeless areas. We were in the park too late in the season to see the wildflowers that blanket the alpine zone in the spring and summer months. Fall was definitely in the air, as was evident by the brilliant foliage found on the trees in the montane zone.
I concluded that Rocky Mountain is unique in its own right. We experienced several climate and geographical zones within the park. Our senses were stimulated by the range of colors, the bodies of water and the wildlife. In addition, Jim is happy that he can now check Rocky Mountain National Park off his list, but I am still cold from the time spent in the alpine zone. I think I need another spa day to warm up! Is Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Spa and Resort near by?
I believe a marriage can have multiple honeymoon phases, regardless of the length of the marriage. The actuality of this long, anticipated trip served to reignite those “just married” emotions for us. However, after three months on the road, I believe the honeymoon is over due to the following scenario:
We were driving to Antonito, Colorado when we saw the Great Sand Dunes National Park sign. Our atlas stated that it is the youngest National Park in the U.S., decreed by Congress in 2004 and that the dunes in this park are the tallest in North America. It was only 25 miles off our intended path, so we detoured to it.
We found the dunes truly spectacular and other worldly. We could see tiny dots of people way up on the dunes. Although we were not prepared for a hike, I could not leave the park without at least attempting to summit the 1.25 mile hike to the High Dune on the First Ridge. So we grabbed our hats and water bottles and headed up.
But then Jim literally left me…the altitude, elevation and uphill climb in deep sand were challenging and I couldn’t keep up with his long strides. When I called out for him to wait, he told me that he was also struggling and was in “survival mode”. Interpretation: every person for him or herself! What happened to “we are in this together”, chivalry and gentility? So having no choice, I continued to struggle up hill alone, sinking into the sand. I decided perhaps I didn’t sound pitiful enough and called out to him again, this time with a distressing tone. His response was “you’ll make it” as he continued ahead of me.
I finally began walking in his footsteps, which reserved my energy because it was difficult pulling my feet out of the sand as I sank. At least the sand was already compressed if I followed the path he made. I laughed out loud and snapped the picture below when I caught Jim doubled over, gasping for air. You see, by this time, I was able to conserve my energy because he was using his energy to create my path!
Jim was considerate enough to carry both water bottles in his shorts pockets since I had no pockets and he would allow me to catch up with him from time to time in order to get a drink of water. But, don’t be deceived. When he reached the penultimate peak, he stood there, looked down at me struggling up the most difficult climb (by this time, the wind was so strong, his footprints were covered with sand so I no longer had his path to follow) and held up my water bottle, he claims as a motivator for me. Perhaps I wouldn’t doubt his sincerity if it weren’t for such a wicked grin on his face.
Both of us succeeded in reaching the summit of High Dune, a total elevation gain of 699 feet, although Jim arrived well before I did. In spite of the high wind and exhaustion, I had to strike my victory pose. Descending was easier for me than Jim so I sought my revenge and left him in a sprint when we reached flat ground again. I guess the honeymoon is over for me too!
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.
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 Â vicinity of the “thermal features” was a little unsettling. Pamala said “the Devil left his mark”.
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.
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. Â 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.
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
No, we didn’t drive it. I’ll be back!
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
It was the Russian architecture that prompted me to visit the Kenai Peninsula, but it was the scenery that captivated me. Of all the places I visited, this is, by far, my favorite location in Alaska. Â The beautiful Kenai Fjords National Park is located on the peninsula. Â The northwest coast of the peninsula is marshy and with less elevation but is the home to a clear and inviting beach. Â Several large lakes extend through the interior of the peninsula, including Skilak Lake and Tustumena Lake. There are also several rivers but my favorite is the Kenai River, famous for its salmon population.
Â Â The beach was peppered with jelly fish
Fishermen on the Kenai River
I witnessed salmon, my favorite fish, swimming upstream. Of course I knew that salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs and then die but I had no idea what a spectacle it would be to actually see it occur. As I sat on the bank watching the salmon in various stages of their journey upstream, I couldn’t help but to reflect on how their journey mirrors life, my life specifically.
There were salmon swimming along with lots of energy as they fought the current. They were so determined to make it that they would often times leap forward out of the water to gain a few more feet. Others would progress a couple of yards, only to have their progress undermined by the current and lose what distance they gained and sometimes, be pushed further back by the current. Some of the salmon were so exhausted that they made no progress at all. These salmon used the last of their energy fighting the current to stay in place, making no progress upstream. Others were dying, floating on their sides as they tried in vain to right themselves. Many were dead already, leaving behind the miasma of decay along the river bank.
As I sat beside myself, there were reflections of the times in my life when I moved forward with life with Herculean-like speed, feeling unstoppable. All was good and then, as it is with the ebb and flow of life, I would experience a set-back, sometimes minor, sometimes major. There were other times when I would feel exhausted by life and made no progress at all. I would be stagnant and was merely existing. Yet, unlike the salmon I have had more than three to seven years to try to figure out what’s truly important in my life because I know that like the salmon, I too, will one day be unable to right myself and will die.
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!
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 aroundÃ‚Â 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.Ã‚Â 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.
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. Â So I spent the morning and early afternoon prepping and waiting for parts.
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!
Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska. It has the accoutrements of any urban area and of all the places we visited in Alaska so far, it has the least Alaskan aura. Nevertheless, it has many offerings worthy of mentioning. First of all, the bike paths throughout the city are phenomenal. They are converted to cross-country ski tracks during the winter months that allow pedestrians on foot, skies or bicycle to safely traverse the city through wooded areas, along the ocean as well as paralleling city streets.
On a portion of bike path along the ocean near airport
The Botanical Garden is beautiful and show cases native, rare and different varieties of flowers and vegetable plants. Thanks to our daughter Claressa for suggesting that we visit it.
We patronized the open-air market, the cultural center, and acres and acres of park grounds next to the ocean that has a large network of hiking trails.
Could not resist the fruit at the market!
Performer demonstrating his athletic prowess
At the park enjoying all the green space and flowers
Since the native Alaskans have used dogs for transportation well before the first Russian appeared, we felt we would have been remiss if we had left Anchorage without experiencing a sled dog ride. It was probably the pinnacle of our time spent here, however short-lived it was.
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.
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.
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.
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. Â “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.Â â€œhonestly, 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! â€œ IÂ 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.
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.
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!