Skagway – Alaska

We had lunch in Skagway today. It was an international meal. We had to leave the Yukon Territories  for British Columbia, and then go through customs at the Alaska border. The trip took about an hour from our Carcross camp. With this little jaunt, we have covered every mile of the Klondike Highway, from mile zero in Skagway to the Dawson City ferry.

The Klondike Highway between Carcross and Skagway is pure eye-candy. It climbs beside a series of lakes up to the three thousand foot White Pass, and the border. There the road descends back to sea level in thirteen miles, with grades up to 15% (my guess, they’re not marked). I would compare it to Arthur’s Pass in New Zealand. If you lost your brakes on either hill, I’m sure you’d hit the ocean and skip across the water.

Tree Line
The tree line at White Pass is below 3000 ft. Glacial ponds dot the bedrock landscape.

The vegetation along the road ranges from dense spruce to above tree line, then back to broad leaf forests. The top of the pass is glacially scraped bedrock with thousands of little alpine ponds. If you keep watch on the high slopes, you may see a mountain goat or two. After passing the summit, it’s easy to see how a glacier cut the fjord that Skagway is in.

White Pass
The west side of White Pass has a steep grade. In this photo, you can see the train tracks climbing along the fjord wall above the Skagway River.

As for Skagway . . . there were two cruise ships in port, so the town was packed. There were shuttle vans taking people up to the pass, there were trains taking people up to the pass, and there were airplanes taking people up to the pass. You can rent bicycles, mopeds or just walk thirteen miles up the hill.

If you don’t know the history of the pass, here’s the thirty-second version.

Part A: During the 1890’s Klondike gold rush, prospectors throughout the world converged in this area trying to get to the Yukon gold fields. The original preferred route was the Chilkoot Trail. Historic photos show men shoulder to shoulder, climbing this pass in the snow. To cross into Canada, you had to prove that you could sustain for a year, so you had to have a ton of provisions with you. You, or someone you paid had to carry all that junk up to the border and pile it on a scale. Only then could you enter the Yukon.

Part B: In 1900 an US/Canadian company completed a narrow gauge railroad that runs between Skagway and Whitehorse (it still does) through White Pass. After that prospectors abandoned the Chilkoot route. Twenty years later, all the easy gold was gone anyway.

Yellow Street Cars on City Tours
Old building line the historic part of town, where merchants offer the typical items that tourists crave.

Back to Skagway. A lot of today’s tourists didn’t care about the pass. They’d prefer to shop for jewelry, furs, tee shirts or fudge. While they’re at it, maybe they’d like a beer, a meal, or visit a brothel. That’s what Skagway does very well. The historic buildings are well-kept and neat to see. There are several museums to visit and learn about its history. But the things you need to live there are hard to find, like a gas station, grocery store or even a working bank. They are in a different part of the town.

Skagway Post Office
Every American Town has one.

I’m glad we visited, we had fun visiting the brothel (it’s on the haunted building registry), but we didn’t pay ten bucks for the twenty-minute tour (same price as in 1899). Continuing a tradition that started on my fiftieth birthday, Anne bellied up to the bar and bought me a beer, but not a the tee-shirt.

Tomorrow, we break camp and move south into British Columbia where we will be dry camping lakeside at a Provincial Park. We won’t have an internet connection, so my next post will have to wait till we return to civilization.

jw

Carcross – Yukon Territories

Queen Anne and I left the gang behind in Tok two days ago. Since we have different priorities for the trip home, the group figured it would be best for each of us to follow our own routes and time-table. Fred and Deb promised that they would send updates and photos via email so we can follow their adventures too. For example, they made it to Beaver Creek today and by chance, stopped at the same store we had visited yesterday . . . Only they ran into Dudley Do Right.

Dudly Do-Right With Sally and Deb
Sally and Deb run into Dudley Do-right at the local convenience market/Laundromat. Who knew stars hang out in Beaver Creek, YT?

Yesterday’s road was enough to tear the rest of my hair out. After leaving Tok the Alaska Highway gets a bit rough, and I began to hear clunking coming from the trailer hitch. We pulled into a wayside to make sure nothing was wrong. I have a device that clamps the hitch to the receiver and I wanted to make sure it was tight. Since the parking area was on a slant, the first thing I did was to chock the trailer tires. After fiddling with the receiver and hitch, we tightened everything up and connected the Ritz to Fritz. A few miles down the road confirmed that we had fixed the clunk. It wasn’t until we left this morning that I realized that I had driven away from the chocks. Now we have to get a new set.

We were trying to make a campground in Destruction Bay (ominous name, isn’t it). Remember when I bragged about my clean and shiny truck and trailer. Well, between Beaver Creek and Destruction Bay, the Canadians have three construction zones. They never really fix the roads, they just scrape off the surface, pile more dirt in the wallows, then put more gravel and oil on it. That takes all summer. Just to summarize it, there was fifteen miles of wet mud, in the rain where they were fixing the road. By the time we made camp, I didn’t want to touch the car or trailer.

Kluane Lake and Ruby Range
The mirror like waters of Kluane Lake reflect the Ruby Range east of the lake.

We did camp last night in a Provincial Park campgrounds at Kluane Lake. Our campsite was on the water so we enjoyed the marvelous view and the pair of loons that came by for a visit. Before a breeze picked up, the water was glass smooth. We sat around a campfire for dinner before turning in. As we were leaving a pair of white swans called us down to the shore to show off their signet.

We made Whitehorse by lunch. That’s an important milestone as we now have traveled every mile of the Alaskan Highway. If you remember, we left the highway because we wanted to go through Dawson City, and only God knows why, the town of Chicken. (See previous dirty car rant.)

CarCross Railroad Depot
The town of Carcross has a working train depot.

After lunch in Whitehorse, we headed south on the Klondike Trail and we’re camped in an RV park in Carcross. I know, the first thing that went through my mind was it was some car ferry or something, but this is the site where great herds of caribou forged the Yukon River. It sort of changes the way you pronounce the town’s name. It’s a small native village on Bennett Lake, which is one of a series of lakes at the headwaters of the Yukon.

Tagish Lake
Tagish Lake is one of several lakes that deliver water to the Yukon River.

We chose to stay here, because tomorrow we’re going to run into Skagway for a visit. It’s only sixty miles and we can make it down for lunch and back for dinner. I should have a report for you tomorrow.

jw

Tok – Alaska

Tok (rhymes with Coke) is a small town along the Alaska Highway not a hundred miles west of the Canadian border. Sometimes on the road signs it’s called Tok and other times Tok Junction, since it’s where Alaska Highway (AK 2) and the Richardson Highway (AK 1) intersect. Because of its site, the main industry here is to service highway travelers. The unique thing about Tok is, if you drive into Alaska, it’s the only community you have to go through twice.

Queen Anne and I returned to Tok yesterday and the rest of the gang will arrive this afternoon. (The SS Minnow did return to port late yesterday and everyone had a great time, see Deb’s comment in the Valdez post for details) This means we’ve completed our circular tour of the state. By this time tomorrow, we will have bid Alaska farewell and begun our trip home via Yukon Territories, British Colombia and along the US west coast.

We’re staying at the Sourdough Campgrounds RV Park and Cafe run by Tim and Tracy Hulett. They both share responsibilities in running the park and café. Tim cooks and Tracy handles the tables. Tracy checks in guests and Tim does maintenance in the park.

The park has two shticks going for it. The first is that they have a quarter car wash on the premise. I can’t begin to tell you how important that was to us after driving down the muddy Chicken Road. The second unique thing they do here is every evening they hold their world-famous pancake toss on the stage behind the office. OK, so someone in England knows about it and that makes it world-famous.

Every night, Tim has about a dozen pancakes on a platter, and every attendant gets a turn at tossing two pancakes into a bucket. The first one is practice, but if you get the second one in, you win a free pancake breakfast in the morning. Of course, during the show, each person gets to introduce them self, tell where they are from and what they hope to see on their trip. Each person tells their own story and there is a lot of ribbing that goes on. For example when our gang all stood up and said that we were from Congress, no one believed anyone was left in town.

When someone is ready to toss a pancake (and the secret is to toss and not try to fling them Frisbee style), they say ready and the rest of the audience has to chant encouragement. If Tim catches someone not chanting, they have to go in front of the audience and get chanting lessons.

I know that this is something I should have written about last month, but I didn’t. We had WiFi problems and I had to catch up on several posts. I also knew that we would be back . . . for another reason.

Rub on the Roibs
Last night I made up a rub from some of the ingredients we had, and a borrowed bottle of spice from Fred.

After the show we attended, we all sat around the campfire that Tim builds each evening and just chatted. We enjoyed our wine and asked to hear Tim’s story . . . which eventually led to cooking. As we compared favorite foods, he boasted about his ribs. I turned to Anne and said, “Here, hold my beer; watch this.” And that’s how the first ever Great Tok Rib Smack-Down was born.

Borrowed Smoker
This is the electric smoker that Tim let me use. I’ve never used one like this before. The way I figure, If I lose, I can blame the smoker. If I win, I gotta get me one of these.

It took a month looking for ingredients to make my sauce and Tim graciously supplied a couple of rib racks and electric smoker for me to use. The ribs have been on for three hours now with two more to go before the judging. My ribs look great and I haven’t even put sauce on them yet. Tracy has enlisted two or three people checking in to serve as judges. They won’t know who the cooks were.

Chef at Work
The ribs are half done now and are looking great. At this point, I don’t want to let them dry out, so I turned the heat down.

I honestly don’t care who wins. I see the event as a kind of going away party; a celebration of our time in Alaska. The best thing of all, is that when we hit the road, we’ll be driving a sparkly clean truck and trailer behind.

jw

P.S. Although it doesn’t really matter, the judges marginally voted for my ribs. I don’t believe there’s a looser here, because we both enjoyed cooking. Thanks again for the hospitality Tim.

 Tim Offer Congratulations
Jim and café owner, Tim Hulett, shake hands in congratulations.

P.S.S. At this evening’s pancake toss, yours truly won a free pancake breakfast.

Valdez – Alaska

Ho hum, another waterfall, another glacier. You can quickly get jaded after a month in Alaska. On today’s drive we, crossed over the Alaska Range. The same one that parallels the Alaska Highway, and impressed us so much the first week we arrived. Today, Anne’s comment was, “Those are pretty, but they don’t have snow on them so they’re not very high.”

Horsetail Falls
As the Richardson Highway descends into Valdez, several waterfalls decorate the cliffs.

Yesterday’s adventure was driving down to Valdez to have lunch with Sally, Fred and Deb. They chartered a boat to do a three-hour cruise to some island. The charter company delayed their cruise for two days, because the boat was in repair. The last we heard this morning was that boat left the harbor, but we haven’t heard back from them . . . yet.

Glacial Bogs
Tidal bogs provide wetlands along the road to Valdez.

We wanted to visit Valdez to see what it was like. It was raining and foggy, so we didn’t get to see much of anything. It’s another fjord port along the southern coast and the terminus for the Alaska Pipeline. What little of the mountain tops we could see from town, towered above the water, just like in Seward. And as I said, there was only a hint of them appearing now and then through the fog.

Bridal Veil Falls
Another water fall and in my opinion, the most photogenic along the Richardson Highway, is Bridal Veil Falls.

The most interesting thing that the Queen and I saw, was the massive school of pink salmon in the bay in front of the fish hatchery. I’ve seen Jacques Cousteau films of schools like this, but I was awe-struck when I saw it with my own eyes. There were so many fish in the bay that they had to bump into one another as they swam. Seals were coming up from beneath the school and charging them. We could see the fish boil to the surface as they tried to evade the hidden predators.

Behind us on the other side of the road, a small water fall came from the cliff, making a short creek that ran through a road culvert and into the sea. The creek too was salmon packed. Above the first small riffle awaited a gauntlet of sea gulls that attacked every fish that tried to make its way upstream. One after another, the salmon tried and failed. The fish still kept coming.

Deb, Fred and Sally told us how they saw other animals join in on the harvest. There were bald eagles, sea otters, and they saw a grizzly that appeared out of the dense woods. He strolled to the water’s edge and plunged his muzzle into the water and then retreated back to the forest with dinner wiggling in his mouth.

Worthington Glacier
Although we did see a Cal Worthington Dodge dealership in Fairbanks, I doubt that they named this glacier after Cal (and his dog spot).

The fish were so dense that fishing meant casting a hook into the water dragging it back intending to snag a fish. I was tempted to try my hand, but it was raining and my heart just wasn’t into fishing in that way. I watched a couple of guys haul in three or four fish in five minutes that way before we left for the drive back to camp. Unlike the waterfalls and glacier, we stopped to shoot along the way home, I doubt I will ever get to see another run of salmon like that again in my life.

jw

McCarthy/Kennicott/Kennecott – Alaska

If you ever fly in to Alaska and rent a car or motor-home, there will be a clause on your contract that forbids you from driving on certain roads. The first is the Dalton Road to Prudhoe Bay, the second is the road to Chicken, and the most notorious is the McCarthy Road, and it’s infamous for good reason, because it was never meant to be a road.

Kennecott Ore Processing
The huge multi-story building processed ore from the mines and loaded it on train cars.

In 1900, two independent prospectors discovered a large copper deposit on the mountain above the Kennicott glacier, later tagged as the Bonanza Hills. To shorten a story too long for a blog, over the next ten years a lot of political wrangling went on and investors formed a publicly traded company, except the person filing the papers misspelled the glacier’s name. So now, if you’re talking about the glacier below the mine it’s Kennicott, otherwise anything to do with the mine is Kennecott. I’m glad to find out that I’m not the only one who flunked spelling classes.

Kennecott Power Plant
This building supplied the power needed to process the ore.

Back to the road . . . the company needed a way to get the ore out and down to the coast at Cordova. Like any good corporation, they started another corporation to build a railroad and named it the Copper River & Northwest Railroad (CR&NW). Detractors used the initials to call the investment “Can’t Run & Never Will Railroad”. However, the scheme worked and ran successfully for twenty years before copper prices plummeted and in the thirties, the company closed the mines.

Kennecott Shift Manager's House
Although small, most of the wood detail in the house is exceptional. I wonder how the manager would have reacted to the building leaning in his window.

Years pass and someone salvaged the rails from the track, but there’s still a historic old mining site up river from Chitina that could draw tourists. So, some brilliant entrepreneur dumps gravel over the ties and that becomes the McCarthy Road. During its early years, the discarded spikes tore up a lot of tires. Since those are collectors items now, they’re not as big of a problem. The road covers sixty miles and on a good day takes two to three hours to travel.

Kennecott Processing and Bonanza Hill
The processing plant towers over the town with its complex architecture. The mountain that supported this ingenuity is in the background.

The problem now is that the road was never built for automotive traffic. The road is not maintained well, so it is full of ruts and potholes, there is frequent blockage due to rocks and mudslides, there are no shoulders and the road runs through bogs. The road is essentially one lane wide so cars passing need to give way. This year alone there have been two incidents where a motor-home has pulled over to the ‘should have been a’ shoulder and needed rescue. Last week, one just flopped over on its side and on my trip, we called a hook for one listing thirty degrees.

McCarthy Hotel
Whereas Kennecott was a company town, McCarthy was the place to let loose. There is still a functioning hotel there. Good luck in getting a reservation.

OK, I cheated. I hitched a ride on the scheduled shuttle bus. It cost a lot less than having to call a tow truck and the wear and tear on Fritz. Even though, in hindsight I thought the Chicken Road was worse, I still felt it was the better choice. I only had enough time to work before the return bus and couldn’t hang around for the perfect light. Unless you want to pay $250.00 for the private bridge across the Kennicott river, you have to walk or take the shuttle up the four and a half miles to Kennecott anyway.

McCarthy Groceries Meats and Hardware
If you couldn’t buy it here, it was probably up on Silk Stocking Road.

If I were to make the trip again, I would consider paying another hundred dollars to McCarthy Air and fly from Glennallen to McCarthy. Then I wouldn’t even need to walk over the foot bridge the park service built. To land at the McCarthy’s gravel field, you have to circle a couple of the mountains and come in over the glacier. That would be cool.

jw

Glennallen – Alaska

At the intersection in Glennallen, you have two choices. To the right the road leads south to Valdez. A left turn will take you north back to the Alaska Highway. Other than that, there isn’t a reason to come to Glennallen which is an unincorporated community consisted of an overpriced gas station, an RV park and a Laundromat. So why did we spend five days here?

Mount Sergent Robinson
The Chugach Range is south of the highway and can easily be seen across the river as you drive.

Let’s back up and start with the Glenn Highway, the road we took to get here. Mile for mile, it was the most scenic road we’ve traveled in Alaska. Starting in Palmer it’s an easy three-hour drive, climbing from near sea level to a pass almost four thousand feet before descending into the Copper River Valley.

Gypsum Mountain
The colors in Gypsum Mountain are the result of volcanic cooking. Normally gypsum is white, but iron deposits have rusted the gypsum.

The climb out of Palmer follows the Matanuska River as it cuts a path between the Talkeena Range to the north and the Chugach Range on the south side. It’s hard to see much of the Talkeenas, but the wide river basin really makes it perfect to see the mountains and glaciers lining the south side of the road; each more photogenic than the last.

Then at the head of the climb is the Matanuska Glacier, the river’s source. It’s bright white ice flows north from the mountain for miles before curving west at its moraine. The massive ice structure is easily visible from the highway and if you take the time, you can get access to the glacier from the side roads.

Matanuska Glacier
The Matanuska Glacier flows north for miles before turning west at its moraine.

Anne and I got an early start, thinking we’d stop for breakfast at the first café we found. There wasn’t one open until we reached the Eureka Lodge on the high pass. When we stopped we had to put jackets on to ward off the chilly wind. After enjoying ham and eggs the way God intended, It shocked me to find that the price of my coffee was only a quarter, and  our meals were equally reasonable.

Sheep Mountain
When you stop at a place called sheep mountain, make sure to keep your eyes peeled, you may spot Dall Sheep. In this case, my long lens was able to turn the white dots into white dots with legs.

That brings us back to the choices at the Glennallen intersection. While you make a decision, you may want to look straight ahead.  In front of you are three snow-capped mountains. The apparent tallest is Mt. Drum, but it’s only 12,011 feet tall. To it’s left is Mt. Sanford (16,237), and a bit south is the much broader active volcano, Mt. Wrangell (14,163). It’s then you’ll know that you’re at the western border of the Wrangell – Saint Elias National Park. It starts on the other side of the Copper River below you. It is the largest National Park in the US. At over thirteen million acres, it’s the same size as Yellowstone National Park . . . and Switzerland combined. It’s elevation ranges from the sea-shore on its south side to Mount Saint Elias which is over eighteen thousand feet. It is the largest concentration of plus fourteen thousand foot mountains in North America.

Enough statistics for now. Let me sit here for five days and see how much of it I can shoot. There are only two roads that cross the park’s boundary. Both of them are bad, but one I plan to take this week.

jw

Freddy’s Place – Alaska

Many camping neophytes don’t know of the alternative RV campsites. By that I mean the places you can stop and sleep for the night without paying.  The most well known is Wall-Mart. As long as you don’t block the front doors and don’t set the parking lot afire, you’re welcome to spend the night in their parking lot. When you’re on the road, it’s comforting to know that you can rely on those places in a pinch.

Last night we accepted such hospitality at Fred Meyers. That’s a northwest supermarket chain you may know as Kroger. We call them Fry’s at home. We were in transit from Seward to Glenallen and needed to find place to sleep. The Fred Meyer’s places (at least in Alaska) allow you to stay overnight in their parking lot. Since we were in transit for a day, we accepted their hospitality.

At first, we felt like we were imposing, but from our perspective, it was wonderful. We went to the service desk to make sure that it was ok to camp in their lot. The manager assured us that it was ok as long as we didn’t block the front entry. They then added, “You will be moving first thing in the morning, won’t you?”

In all, it was a wise decision to stay. We learned a lot about Palmer by walking its streets that evening, and we found out that they have a steam whistle that blows at five o’clock. It happens the whistle was at the fire station across the street from our parking spot . . . Thank God I was already on the pot; I’m forbidden from telling you what happened to Queen Anne’s pants.

Except for the paperboy who owned the loud rice-rocket delivering papers at 3am, the night was actually quiet and we slept in until eight. That’s when the morning whistle went off. Then I got up with my dopp kit and towel draped over my shoulder and started to march into the store to shave and brush my teeth.

“Sir; you can’t come in here dressed like that!”

“These are my best cowboy pj’s! What’s wrong with them?”‘. . . Don’t ever argue with a box boy.

Anyway, our thanks to Freddy’s, especially for keeping the store open til 10pm so that we could make a Cherry Garcia ice cream run. That got us through the night . . . Not to mention the morning coffee and doughnut fix.

jw