After driving over 1,170 miles on the Alaska Highway, we finally reached the Alaska border. We celebrated at the Welcome to Alaska sign. For Jan, this represented the 50th state she had visited. Phil had achieved this milestone several years earlier but hadn’t been to Alaska since he was a couple of months old (except for a few hours in the airport when he was 5). When we reached the US Customs checkpoint, we were faced with a dilemma. There were two lines; one was for cars and RVs and the other was for commercial trucks. However, the car and RV line only had a 12’ 10” clearance and our rig is 13’ 6” high. Fortunately a customs officer walked out of the customs office before we reached the front of the line and he had us go through the commercial truck line.
We continued on for the rest of our 111 mile drive to Tok, AK. We stopped at the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge visitor center where we watched a video about the refuge and took a short hike to a couple of trapper cabins.
We spent the night at Sourdough Campground in Tok. We had a nice long pull-through site in a wooded area. After getting set up, we went to the Burnt Paw Gift Shop. We were given a presentation about dog sled racing by a man who raced in the first Iditarod sled race. He answered a lot of questions about dog sled racing and explained about the different types of dog sleds. We learned that it costs about $80,000 a year to maintain a dog sled racing team.
Our next stop was at the Jack Wade Gold Company. We learned that the selling price for gold nuggets is much higher than for gold bullion. We got to handle several gold nuggets, including one that weighed 5 lbs. The store owners had turned down an offer of $200,000 for this nugget when gold bullion was trading for only $400 an ounce.
Later that evening we attended a folk singing performance by a husband and wife team. Although the singing wasn’t really our cup of tea, it was followed by a pancake toss competition. Each person was given two chances to toss a pancake into a bucket that was about ten feet away. Winners got a free breakfast. When each person was ready to make the toss, the rest of the crowd would chant “bucket, bucket, bucket.” It was corny, but fun. Neither of us managed to get our pancakes into the bucket.
On Tuesday we drove 201 miles to North Pole, AK (9 miles from Fairbanks) where we spent five nights at Riverview RV Park. We made numerous stops along the way. We stopped at the Delta Meat & Sausage Company where we sampled buffalo, elk and reindeer sausage. We balked at buying buffalo steaks at $20.50 per lb. but did buy some sausage and elk nuggets.
Our next stop was at the Delta Junction Visitor Information Center, the end of the Alaska Highway. We received our certificate for completing the 1,422 mile highway.
We next stopped at Rika’s Roadhouse that served miners and prospectors along the 380-mile route between Valdez and Fairbanks since 1910. We took the self-guided tour and had lunch at the café. We then stopped briefly to see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Bridge over the Tanana River.
After stopping at a rest stop, we passed a moose standing in a lake. We drove on to the next turnaround, returned to the rest stop and then hiked up to the road to see the moose. Moose like to eat the vegetation at the bottom of ponds and can hold their breath for up to 30 seconds. They have the ability to close the nostrils as they stick their heads under water.
When we arrived at North Pole, AK, we stopped at the Santa Claus House. We were disappointed that Santa was out of town but we did get to see some of his reindeer.
After getting set up at the campground, Phil went to the office and was very happy to find that our forwarded mail had arrived, as well as the replacement plate for our microwave.
That evening we drove into Fairbanks. We picked up prescriptions at Walgreens, had dinner at Big Daddy’s Bar-B-Q and did grocery shopping. We were happy to be back shopping at US grocery stores as we were able to find several things we had not been able to find in Canada.
July 4th was a free day. We used it to catch up on a variety of domestic duties, such as laundry and cleaning the rig (both inside and in the basement). After our hectic travel schedule, it was great to be able to have a day to relax.
On Thursday, July 5th, we started the day at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Georgeson Botanical Gardens. These large gardens held a wide variety of flowers and vegetables. One large section was devoted to peonies which have become a cash crop for Alaska. Peonies thrive down to 60 below, need cold weather to flourish and, during the wedding high season of June to September, Alaska is the only place the world can buy them.
We also strolled down the road to see the University’s experimental farm to see the reindeer.
Next, we went to the University’s Museum of the North. The museum contained many collections of specimens from millions of years of biological diversity and thousands of years of cultural traditions in the North.
That evening we went to Pioneer Park where we had an all-you-can-eat buffet of salmon, cod and prime rib as well as salad bar, side dishes and a dessert bar. The weather was ideal for dining outdoors. After dinner, we walked to the Palace Theatre where we attended “The Golden Heart Revue,” a lighthearted, comic look at the colorful characters from early and present day Fairbanks.
On Friday we took a 4-hour tour on the Cheena River aboard the 900-passenger riverboat sternwheeler, Discovery III. The Binkley family has been operating steamboats on Alaskan rivers for five generations. In 1950, faced with competition from railroads and airplanes for carrying freight, the Binkleys started a river excursion business.
The tour began with a demonstration by a bush pilot who took off and landed twice next to the boat. The pilot explained the vital role planes play in remote Alaska. We learned that one in every 73 Alaskans has a pilot’s license.
Next we stopped at the Trail Breaker Kennels, established in 1980 by the husband and wife team of David Monson and the late Susan Butcher. Susan was the second woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1986 and was the first person to win four out of five years. We learned about sled dog kennel life and the challenge of making a champion dogsled team from Susan’s daughter, Tekla. We first watched puppies being trained to jump over logs. Then we watched as the adult dogs were hitched to an ATV and took off for an exercise run.
Our next stop was at an Athabascan fish camp where we learned how the Native Alaskans lived their subsistence lifestyle for thousands of years. We saw a mechanical fish catcher that is powered entirely by the river’s current. We also watched a Native Alaskan demonstrate how salmon are dried and smoked.
We next disembarked at an Athabascan Indian village where we took a guided walking tour. The guides were all Native Alaskan college students who shared their culture. We learned how the Athabascans survived the brutal environment for over 10,000 years and how they have adapted to village life and Western culture in the past century.
On Saturday we toured Gold Dredge 8 which operated between 1928 and 1959, extracting millions of ounces of gold from the frozen Alaskan ground. It is said that the dredges and mining saved Fairbanks during these years. The War Production Board closed all US gold mines in 1942 for the duration of World War II and, after the war, few reopened. Gold Dredge 8 was one of the few that reopened but shut down in 1959 due to economic reasons. It was reopened in 1984 for tours. Our tour began with a 25-minute ride on the Tanana Valley Railroad near some of the original routes and enjoyed an explanation of the gold mining process.
The train stopped beside the dredge and a miner explained how it had operated. One end of the dredge digs the gravel, the middle part of the dredge washes the gravel with water and separates the gold from the gravel, and the end discards the waste gravel and water.
After leaving the train, we were each given a poke of pay dirt and got to try our hands at uncovering the gold in our pans. Between the two of us, we harvested $33 worth of gold flakes.
After leaving the gold dredge, we visited a section of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). The 800-mile pipeline was built between 1974 and 1977 at a cost of $8 billion, the most expensive privately-funded construction project of its time. Although about half of the pipeline is underground, it was necessary to elevate the pipeline in areas where the ground has permafrost. The heat of the oil would have melted the permafrost, resulting in the pipeline being crushed.
On Sunday, July 8th, we drove 121 miles to Denali Park where we spent two nights at Denali RV Park and Motel. The only stop we made was at the Alaska State Railroad Museum in the town of Nenana. Unfortunately the museum is closed on Sundays so we just wandered around the outdoor memorabilia.
We had been forewarned that there was a high wind advisory for Sunday afternoon and we ran into 60 mph winds over the last 11 miles of our drive. It wasn’t fun being buffeted by the wind and we were very glad when the drive was over. Our campsite was the first back-in we’d had in a couple of months. Fortunately we arrived early and didn’t have too many obstacles to overcome in backing into our site.
Our group attended the Cabin Nite Dinner and Show, a dinner theater performed in an authentic, log-paneled roadhouse. We were served a family style dinner by a cast of characters from the Gold Rush era in early 1900s. After dinner, the cast gave a performance of storytelling and spirited music and humor.
The wind continued throughout the night and it was difficult to sleep with all the rocking and creaking of our rig. On Monday morning we awoke to our alarm at 4 am to get to Denali National Park for a 6 am narrated bus tour. There is only one road through Denali NP and personal cars are limited to the first 15 miles. The tour bus, only slightly more comfortable than a school bus, took us 66 miles into the park to the Eielson Visitor Center and then back again. The trip last eight hours. Almost all of the drive was on an unpaved road with no guardrails. The road was so narrow that, when we met another bus on the road, one of the buses had to stop to let the other one pass. We saw a lot of wildlife, including four sets of grizzly sows with their cubs, as well as herds of Dall sheep and caribou, a falcon, a snowshoe hare and a family of willow ptarmigan (the Alaska state bird). The scenery was beautiful, although we were unable to see Mt. McKinley due to the clouds. On average, Mt. McKinley is only visible two days out of the month in July.
The next day was a free day for us. We drove to the Denali Village and had lunch at Prospector’s Pizza. We had the Kodiak Bear pizza, which consisted of pepperoni, Italian sausage, Applewood-smoked bacon, elk meatballs, mozzarella and aged provolone. It was delicious! After doing some shopping in the multitude of gift shops, we returned to Denali National Park. We took our picture at the park sign and then hiked the 3-mile Rock Creek Trail to the sled dog kennels.
We arrived in time for a dogsled demonstration. Unlike the racing sled dogs we saw in Fairbanks, the National Park dogs are working dogs who are used to patrol and maintain the remote portions of the park in the winter.
On Wednesday, July 11th, we drove 154 miles to the small town of Talkeetna, AK (population of about 900) where we spent the night at Mat-Su Valley RV Park.
During the drive, we stopped at two Denali overviews but the thick clouds kept us from seeing anything.
Is it Denali or McKinley? Denali is used by the Koyukon Athabascan people north of the mountain, meaning “high one.” In 1896, William Dickey, a prospector, named the mountain in honor of William McKinley of Ohio who had recently been nominated for the US Presidency. Athabascans do not name places after people and consider it unthinkable that the tallest mountain in their traditional territory should be named after a mere mortal. Many Alaskans and mountain climbers have repeatedly lobbied to have the name changed back to Denali. In 1975, the Alaska legislature made an official request. In 2001, the Alaska Historical Commission committed to changing Denali back to its original name. The US Board of Names usually gives preference to local usage but will not take issue with the US Congress. Policy dictates that name changes cannot be made if there is pending legislation. As long as the congressman from McKinley’s old district in Ohio continues to make sure there is pending legislation, this stalemate will continue.
The downtown area of Talkeetna is on the register of National Historic Places, with buildings dating from the early 1900s. Talkeetna is best known as the starting point for mountaineers before that depart on their climb of Mt. Denali.
Our first stop was at the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum which consisted of several buildings containing local history, mountaineering displays, a 12’ by 12’ scale model of Mt. Denali and a trapper/miner cabin with many period pieces.
Our next stop was at the National Park Service Rangers Station where potential climbers of Mt. Denali must register and receive instructions. The climbing season which runs only from late April until early July had just ended for 2018. Of the 1,114 climbers who attempted the climb in 2018, only 45% reached the summit. We watched a video showing the route that about 90% of the climbers take.
Our final stop was at the Fairview Inn Historic Bar where a lot of mountaineers stop in for a last drink before they depart for their climb.
We had dinner with several of our fellow travelers at Latitude 62, a restaurant recommended by one of the locals at the Fairview Inn.
We had been warned that only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park ever get to see Mt. Denali due to the heavy cloud cover. We had resigned ourselves to not getting to see the mountain. However, when we arose on Thursday morning, we found that some of our fellow travelers had posted clear pictures of Mt. Denali on Facebook. We headed back to the town of Talkeetna and found a couple of spots where we had clear views of the mountain.
We then headed out for a 90-mile drive to Anchorage where we spent three nights at the Golden Nugget Camper Park. The trip to Anchorage represented Phil’s return to his birthplace. After getting set up, Phil took the truck to get four new tires for the rear axle. As much as he wished he could have waited until we were back in the Lower 48 for cheaper prices, the tire tread was too worn down and our travels over the next two months will cover many miles and rough road conditions.
On Friday we went to downtown Anchorage for a trolley tour. The weather was perfect. Anchorage is a lovely, modern city, with coastline on one side and mountains on the other. The downtown district is lined with beautiful flowers. Anchorage’s population of 300,000 represents over 40% of the entire state’s population of 700,000.
While we were waiting for the tour, we explored the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in the Federal Building after clearing an extensive security screening. There was so much to see that we could have easily spent several hours, if time had allowed.
The trolley tour lasted about an hour and covered 15 miles. Our driver was a college student who has lived his whole life in Anchorage. He shared both history and personal experiences about Anchorage. We visited the Alaskan Railroad depot, Resolution Park with its monument to the explorer Captain Cook, and historic neighborhoods. We learned a lot about the earthquake that hit on Good Friday 1964. The earthquake was the second strongest in world history and lasted over four minutes. We stopped in Earthquake Park and saw where the residential neighborhood had dropped 20 feet in the quake. We also drove along Lake Hood and Lake Spenard and watched float planes take off and land on the lake.
Our driver recommended a restaurant, Humpy’s, for its chowder so, after the tour, we headed there for lunch. The chowder lived up to the recommendation.
In the afternoon we visited Alaska Wild Berry Products, a manufacturer and retailer of candies and jellies. One of the highlights was a 20-foot-high chocolate waterfall.
On Saturday we drove back downtown and strolled through the Anchorage Market and Festival, a large farmers’ market and craft fair. When Phil got tired of looking at the many stalls, he made a quick trip through the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. He got to experience one of the exhibits in virtual reality. Jan purchased an ocarina flute and is committed to perfecting her playing of “Me and Bobby McGee.”
After meeting up again, we drove to the Alaska Native Heritage Center where we viewed a number of exhibits and demonstrations dealing with the traditional and contemporary ways of Alaska’s indigenous cultures. We learned about the 11 major cultural groups that live in five distinct regions of Alaska. We first watched some young men demonstrating Alaska native games. Then we watched a film about the carving and raising of a totem pole at the Heritage Center. We next strolled around Lake Tiulana and toured six life-sized traditional Native dwellings where cultural hosts were available to answer questions. Our final stop was in the Gathering Place where we watched a performance of Cup’ik dance to drumming and song.
We returned to our campground in time for a pizza party. This was the farewell party for us and four other couples who had only signed up for the first 23 days of the caravan, rather than the full 50 days. It was hard to say goodbye to the many people we had gotten to know but, at the same time, we were looking forward to being on our own again and traveling at a slower pace.
On Sunday, July 15th, we drove 150 miles south to the Kenai Peninsula where we spent three nights at the King Salmon Motel and RV Park in Soldotna, AK. We stopped at Beluga Point, about 10 miles south of Anchorage, but did not see any whales. We also stopped in Cooper Landing where we had lunch and watched fishermen in the river.
On Monday we visited the Soldotna Visitor Center where we got suggestions for local routes where we might see some wildlife. Unfortunately, we struck out on wildlife sightings when we drove these roads later but there was some beautiful scenery. The Visitor Center was connected to the Kenai River by a “fishwalk.” We strolled along the walk and watched fishermen on both banks of the river. The world record King Salmon was on display in the Visitor Center. We also visited the exhibits in the Visitor Center at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, including a renovated historic fishing lodge.
On Tuesday we drove back to Cooper Landing and did a 2-hour scenic float trip on the Upper Kenai River with Alaska Rivers Company. Although it had been raining when we arrived at the departure point, the weather was perfect while we were on the river. Our guide was a Georgia Tech student majoring in Business Management who had managed to finagle this summer job into an internship for college credit. Our six fellow passengers were all on a cruise with Princess Cruise Lines. The river was a beautiful turquoise due to the runoff of silt from the glaciers.
We saw lots of bald eagles along the route.
On Wednesday we drove 75 miles to Homer, AK where we spent four nights camping at Heritage RV Park. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints that provided stunning views of the mountain ranges across the water. The first stop required walking across a large hayfield to the Cook Inlet coast where we stood atop a 100-foot cliff with a great view of Mount Iliamna.
The second viewpoint was as we neared Homer and provided spectacular views of Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond it.
Heritage RV Park is on the Homer Spit, a 4.5 mile strip of land that extends into Kachemak Bay, beyond the town of Homer at the southernmost point on the Kenai Peninsula. The campground, despite being the most expensive on our Alaskan adventure, was very tight. We needed to park our truck in the overflow parking area since there was insufficient space at our site.
In the afternoon we strolled down one side of the spit and watched dozens of fishermen along the bay and ringing a large fishing lagoon. We saw a number of large salmon being caught and even more that were jumping out of the water.
That evening we walked up the other side of the spit. We passed lots of tents camped out on the beach and window-shopped at a lot of small shops and restaurants. We returned along the Homer Boat Harbor where we saw a huge number of fishing boats.
On Thursday we stopped in at the Visitor Center and got advice on things to do and see in the Homer area. Our first stop was at Two Sisters Bakery where we split orders of chocolate bread and a sticky bun. We next strolled along the water at Bishop’s Beach. We then took a drive along the roads high above the town and stopped several times to enjoy the views of the bay and mountains. We visited Bear Creek Winery and enjoyed a wine tasting. Although the weather in Alaska is not good for growing grapes, Bear Creek Winery specializes in blending Alaskan berries with grapes grown elsewhere to make fruity wines. We ended our outing with a drive to the end of Homer Spit.
After dinner we returned to the Fishing Lagoon and watched a lot of salmon being caught.
On Friday we had considered taking a water taxi across the bay to a trail that would have taken us close to a glacier. However, when we learned that it was going to cost us over $160, we decided to pass. Instead, we drove to downtown Homer and strolled along the main drag, Pioneer Avenue. There was no public parking so we parked at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and hiked along the Poopdeck Trail. We looked at a few shops but there wasn’t really too much of interest. After dinner, we strolled along the spit again and stopped for ice cream.
We spent all of Saturday on the spit. First we drove to the very end and walked along the beach.
We ate dinner at Captain Pattie’s. We started with cups of thick clam chowder. Jan then had halibut and Phil had Alaskan weathervane scallops (a.k.a. giant Pacific scallops). Everything was excellent. We then strolled along the spit some more and visited a number of gift shops. We visited the Seafarer’s Memorial, a memorial to fishermen who lost their lives at sea.
We stopped for a drink at the Salty Dawg Saloon. Although the Saloon opened in 1957, the building itself started out as one of the first cabins, built in 1897. It later served as the first post office, a railroad station, a grocery store and a coal mining office. In 1909 a second building was constructed, and served as a school house, post office and grocery store. In the 1940s, it was used as an office for the Standard Oil Company. Patrons are encouraged to commemorate their visit by posting a signed dollar bill on the walls or ceiling.
On Sunday we drove 160 miles to Seward, AK where we spent three night at Stoney Creek RV Park. For dinner we drove downtown and ate at Thorn’s Showcase Lounge. The restaurant is a throwback to the 1960s and has upholstered furniture and liquor decanters lining the walls. We had their specialty, “Bucket of Butt,” which consists of deep-fried halibut chunks.
On Monday, July 23rd, we did the Kenai Fjords National Park day cruise. The weather was miserable, with near constant drizzle and high winds. We were surprised to see numerous small fishing boats and sea kayaks in the rough waters. Many of the passengers around us became seasick but we managed to avoid getting ill. Despite the bad conditions, the cruise was very scenic and we saw a lot of wildlife, including humpback whales, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, sea otters, and a variety of seabirds such as cormorants and puffins.
The cruise took us up to the face of Aialik Glacier and we were able to watch as chunks of the glacier broke off and fell into the water. This action, known as calving, was accompanied by the thunderous sound of the ice cracking. Our boat was surrounded by large chunks of ice that had broken off the glacier. We saw lot of seals resting on top of the ice floes.
After leaving the glacier, we followed a pair of humpback whales that were feeding along the base of the rocks.
We moored at Fox Island for an hour to have a buffet dinner of salmon and prime rib. Fox Island is a very scenic island in Resurrection Bay. We regretted that the foul weather kept us from exploring more of the island. On the return trip to Seward, we encountered a whale carcass.
On Tuesday we went to tour the Exit Glacier which flows down from the Harding Icefield. The Exit Glacier area is the only part of the Kenai Fjords National Park that is accessible by road. We joined in on a ranger-led hike from the outwash plain to the terminus of the glacier. Our guide provided lots of information about the glacier, including geology, plant life and wildlife. Through a series of photographs over the past 14 years, it was easy to see how far the glacier has receded in recent years.
On Wednesday we drove 158 miles north to Palmer, AK where we spent the night at Big Bear Campground and RV Park. Palmer is about 30 miles north of Anchorage. We spent most of the afternoon shopping in the neighboring town of Wasilla (where Sarah Palin was once mayor). Since Wasilla has the last Walgreens we will encounter until we’re back in the Lower 48, we got a prescription filled there. Likewise, we won’t be near another WalMart in Alaska so we loaded up on over $300 in groceries. We made sure to stock up on the many items we couldn’t find in Canada on the trip north. Although we had been to plenty of stores on the West Coast last summer that charged for plastic bags, Wasilla was the first place we’ve shopped that didn’t have non-recyclable grocery bags at all. We had to load all $300 of groceries into our cart one-by-one. When we got back to our rig, we used our laundry basket to bring the groceries in from the truck.
On Thursday we drove 148 miles along the Glenn Highway to Glennallen, AK where we spent the night at Northern Nights RV Park. The drive is regarded by many as the most picturesque in Alaska and it definitely was scenic. Our first stops were at the viewpoints for the Matanuska Glacier, a beautiful glacier 24 miles long and four miles wide, descending twelve thousand feet to the terminus. We later stopped at Sheep Mountain Lodge where we each enjoyed a cinnamon bun. Our final stops were at overlooks for Nelchina Glacier from the 3,322 foot Eureka Summit. Although the drive wasn’t very long, it was quite challenging as the road was very winding and had long, steep ascents and descents. Our truck was definitely put to the test and we only averaged about 7.5 mpg.
On Friday we drove 118 miles on the Richardson Highway to Valdez, AK where we stayed at the Eagles Rest RV Park for five days. The drive was extremely scenic but was also very challenging. The posted speed limit of 65 mph was somewhat of a joke; we were lucky to get to 55 mph given the rough road and steep climbs. The drive took us through Wrangell – St. Elias, a vast national park that rises from the ocean all the way up to 18,008 ft. At 13.2 million acres, the park is the same size as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined! We even spotted a large bull moose. We stopped at the Worthington Glacier State Recreation site and walked down a path to an overview of the glacier. We drove through Thompson Pass in dense fog. The pass is known for its snow accumulation records, 974 inches in the winter of 1952-53 and 62” in a 24-hour period in 1955. There are tall poles along the highway so the snowplow drivers will know where the road is. Later we stopped at turnouts for Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls.
After dinner we walked across the road to another RV park where our former caravan group was staying. It was fun to see the folks again and, even though it had only been 13 days since we left the caravan, there was a lot to catch up on.
On Saturday we visited Old Town Valdez. The original town of Valdez existed from 1898 to 1967. This was “Mile 0” of the Richardson Highway, Alaska’s first highway, built in 1899. It became a major transportation route for supplies and people traveling between coastal Valdez and northern communities. For many years, Old Town Valdez thrived because of its shipping and transportation industries. However, by the 1960s, the locational advantages had declined and Old Valdez was languishing when it was destroyed by the Good Friday earthquake in 1964. The U.S. Corps of Engineers condemned the town site and the surviving residents were given two years to pick up the pieces that were left and move four miles away to a newly created town. Approximately 50 buildings were moved by their owners to “new” Valdez.
We next visited the Crooked Creek Information Center and salmon viewing platform. Pink and chum salmon return to this clear water stream to spawn, with peak numbers in mid-August. Although we were too early to see the salmon, we enjoyed seeing the waterfalls that feed the creek and a nearby pond where we could see many young salmon (fry).
On next stop was the Solomon Gulch Falls and Fish Hatchery where we did a self-guided tour. The hatchery, built in 1981, has a permitted capacity to incubate 250 million pink salmon and 2 million coho salmon each year. Salmon instinctively attempt to spawn in the same pond where they were spawned several years earlier. Average annual adult returns to the hatchery are approximately 13 million pink, and 160,000 coho salmon. These fish return to the hatchery spawning building by swimming up a fish ladder. Hatchery staff spawn as many as 16,000 adult brood stock each day. The remainder are harvested by commercial fishermen and predators. We watched a pair of sea lions feasting on a nearly limitless supply of salmon with very little effort involved.
Our final stop was at the Valdez small boat harbor where we stumbled upon a wood carving exhibition.
On Sunday we hiked the .75 mile Duck Pond Trail. This loop trail included numerous viewpoints overlooking the Valdez harbor.
Next we visited the Valdez Museum Annex that was devoted to an exhibit dealing with the 1964 earthquake. The museum contained many artifacts from old Valdez and included a 1:20 scale historic model showing the town of Valdez prior to the earthquake. We watched numerous videos showing footage of the earthquake and interviews with survivors. The interviews were quite emotional as the survivors discussed how close they came to being killed and the loss of family and friends.
Our next stop was at the main Valdez museum that had more artifacts from old Valdez, including the 40-foot bar from the Pinzon Bar which permanently closed on the day of the 1964 earthquake. The bar pieces had been manufactured in the 1880s.
The museum also contained an exhibit dealing with the March 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. About two hours after leaving the Valdez Marine Terminal with 53 million gallons of crude oil, the Captain of the Exxon Valdez notified the Coast Guard that he intended to move into the inbound lane to avoid icebergs. Twenty minutes later the Captain turned control of the ship over to the Third Mate and left the bridge. The Third Mate was not certified to pilot the ship. Twelve minutes later the Exxon Valdez hit the Bligh Reef and punctured 8 of the ship’s 11 tanks and spilled 5.8 million gallons of oil in the first 3 ¼ hours. Confusion and conflict over ownership of the response effort among Exxon and various governmental agencies delayed action. The day following the spill, the window for containment was lost when a storm, blowing hurricane-force winds of 70 mph, began moving the oil out of Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska. Ultimately, the oil traveled 490 miles from the grounding site, affecting 1,300 miles of coastland.
After leaving the Museum, we stopped in at the Valdez Visitor Center and took in some sights in downtown Valdez.
On Monday, July 30, we took an 8.5 hour cruise on the Lu-Lu Belle. Captain Fred was quite a character. He picked us up at the campground, steered the boat for the entire cruise, narrated the tour almost non-stop, and then drove us back to the campground. He built the boat 40 years ago and has done the cruise seven days a week from the end of May until the beginning of September for 40 years.
Unlike the cruise we had taken the previous Monday, the weather was ideal and the waters were calm. The sights along the coast were beautiful. The snow-capped mountains made it clear why the locals refer to Switzerland as the “Valdez of Europe.” Captain Fred was very skillful in navigating his boat into tight spaces along the rocks to explore various caves.
We saw lots of wildlife. Although we did not find any whales, we did see many sea otters and sea lions. We saw a variety of birds, including puffins and bald eagles. Dall porpoises swam alongside the boat for a while.
The highlight of the cruise was an hour-long stop at the Columbia Glacier. Captain Fred was able to navigate around numerous icebergs to get within ¼ mile of face of the glacier which stood about 250 feet above sea level. During our stay at the glacier, we witnessed many instances of “calving” in which large chunks of the glacier broke off from the face and crashed into the sea. In addition to creating major splashes, the calving resulting in large tidal waves that rocked us even though we were ¼ mile away.
On Tuesday, Phil washed the grime off our rig while Jan did the laundry. In the afternoon we hiked the 3.8 mile John Hunter Memorial Trail (formerly the Solomon Gulch Trail). The first part of the hike consisted of climbing multiple steep hills. Then we descended to the stream at Solomon Gulch, before continuing on to the dam and lake where we turned around for the return trip. Fortunately the return was mostly downhill. The hike was through bear country but we didn’t have any encounters.
On Wednesday we drove 118 miles back north to Glennallen where we spent another night at Northern Nights RV Park. We stopped at the train tunnel hand cut out of solid rock in the Keystone Canyon. The tunnel is all that is left of the Valdez “railroad era” when nine companies fought to take advantage of the short route from the coast to the copper mines at Kennecott. However, a feud interrupted the progress. A gun battle was fought and the tunnel was never completed. We also stopped at the Visitor Center for the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park, by far the largest American National Park. We watched a video about the park and took a ½-mile hike through the boreal forest.
On Thursday we drove 137 miles along the Tok Cutoff highway to Tok, AK where we spent the night at Tok RV Village. The Tok Cutoff highway had many miles of damaged roadway so we had to drive much slower than the posted speed.
On Friday we drove 77 miles on the Taylor Highway to Chicken, AK where we spent two nights at Chicken Creek RV Park. Most of the drive was similar to the previous day’s, with steep ascents and descents and many sections of gravel roads. The last ten miles were especially rough. It took us over two hours to complete the short drive.
Chicken was settled by gold miners in the late 19th century. In 1902 the local post office was established and a town name was required. Due to the prevalence of ptarmigan in the area, that name was suggested as the town name. However, due to uncertainty as to how to spell ptarmigan, Chicken was used instead to avoid embarrassment. The population of Chicken as of the 2010 census was 7, although it is somewhat higher in the summer due to tourism. The closest grocery store is 77 miles away, in Tok, and residents must rely on generators for electricity. There is no cellular service.
After getting set up, we got a guided tour of historic Chicken. We walked through many of the buildings constructed the early 1900s. A small gold mining company came to Chicken in the 1950s and gave some of these buildings new life for a few years. Crude electrical wiring was added by the mining company and tin roofs were added on top of the old sod roofs. Although the buildings are now quite dilapidated, it was interesting to hear how they were utilized in the past. Since many of these buildings are listed on the National Register of Historical Places, they are being left intact and many of the old furnishings are still where they were abandoned.
We learned a lot about Anne Hobbs, a young schoolteacher who came to Chicken in the 1920s and taught there for 10 years in a one-room schoolhouse that had once been a hotel. She lived in an adjoining room and often, during the extreme cold winters, would teach the students as they laid under the covers in her bed. Anne Hobbs was a controversial figure as she insisted on teaching native Alaskans at a time when racism toward natives made this very unpopular. After the tour, we purchased her book, “Tisha”, which deals with her time in Chicken. The title of the book came from the fact that the students couldn’t pronounce “teacher” so they called her “tisha.”
After the tour, we walked next door to the other RV park where they had a large chicken sculpture and a gold mining dredge. Enough gold was mined in Chicken to make it worthwhile to haul huge gold dredges to this remote location. Gold is still being mined in the area.
We had planned to drive the 111-mile Top of the World highway from Chicken, AK to Dawson City, YT on Sunday. The Top of the World highway is so named because, unlike most mountain roads that pass through valleys, it skirts the crest of hills, giving looks down on the valleys. It is one of the most northerly highways in the world. After an entire day of steady drizzle, we had decided to abandon our plans to drive to Dawson. However, when the rain stopped Saturday afternoon, we decided to risk the drive on Sunday morning. The first 37 miles are on the Alaskan side. Of these, the first 25 miles are on a winding, narrow road with numerous hairpin curves around 1,000 foot drop-offs with no guard rails. We left Chicken at 6:20 am because the US-Canadian border crossing doesn’t open until 8 am, enabling Phil to drive down the middle of the road without concern for oncoming traffic. We averaged about 20 mph over this distance and were ecstatic when we reached a 12-mile paved section that took us to the border crossing.
That was the last paved road we saw. The entire Canadian side was unpaved, sloppy and pot-holed, but was wider than the US side. We drove through thick clouds for much of this section, making it difficult to see the road and causing us to continue our slow driving.
When we reached the end of the highway, we had to take a ferry across the Yukon River to reach Dawson City. As we approached the ferry, we spotted an arctic fox running down the road. The scenery along the Top of the World highway was beautiful, although we were both so focused on the road that it made it difficult to enjoy the views. This drive was clearly a “once in a lifetime” adventure and not something we will ever do again. It took us 4h 40m to cover the 111 miles, with only one brief rest stop. Our truck and rig that Phil had washed less than a week earlier was, once again, caked in mud.
This completes the first portion of our time in Alaska. After six days in the Yukon, we will return to Alaska in Haines,