Tennessee Time (October 17 – December 27, 2018)

After our hectic summer travels, we decided to spend an extended stay in Tennessee visiting family, getting RV maintenance performed and just generally relaxing. We had scheduled our RV maintenance at our dealer’s facility in Knoxville on October 29th so we decided to spend the prior 11 days in Nashville. Since our preferred campground, Grand Ole RV Resort, was full, we spent the first four nights at Two Rivers Campground in a 30 amp pull-through site. Jason, Jarrod and Jess dropped by to visit while we were there. Phil took the truck to the Ram dealer in Mt. Juliet for some required maintenance. Since Opry Mills was only a couple of miles away, we visited it twice for shopping and dining.

On Sunday, October 21st, we moved 27 miles to Goodlettsville where we spent a week at Grand Ole RV Resort. We were able to get site #2 which is a long 50 amp pull-through site. We had spent a couple of weeks in this site in April 2018. The site is near the office and playground so there was a large open area by our door side, making it feel like we had a huge campsite.

That evening, Jason, Jarrod and Jess came by for a dinner of spaghetti, salad and Butterfinger cake. Although it was rather cool, we ate outside at our picnic table and listened to the musician who was performing on the office’s porch. We bought some firewood and, after considerable effort to get the green wood to light, we had a roaring campfire.

On Tuesday, we drove into Nashville and visited the Tennessee State Museum. Despite having no admission charge, this was a very impressive museum that provided lots of exhibits dealing with the events, good and bad, that had shaped Tennessee’s history.

On Wednesday, we met Jason, Lizzi and Amanda (Lizzi’s roommate) for dinner in Nashville at the Cheesecake Factory.

On Saturday, we met Jason, Jarrod and Jess at the Regal Cinemas at Opry Mills and watched the latest version of A Star is Born. After the movie, we headed to a nearby go-kart course where all but Phil raced go-karts. Phil’s shoulder was still hurting from the long drive from the West coast so he served as photographer.

On Sunday, we drove 204 miles to Heiskell, TN where we spent the night at Raccoon Valley RV Park. We have stayed at this Escapees park several times and, as members, get a very good rate. Since we didn’t know how long we would be at our dealer’s facility, we had reserved two nights but we ended up only staying Sunday night.

On Monday, we drove to RVs for Less in Knoxville where we ended up spending five nights parked on their lot. Fortunately, three of the major repairs (replacements of the power cord reel, water valve and vanity slide gear box) were covered by our extended warranty. In our first three years, we have already recouped more than the price we paid for the 7-year extended warranty. We also had our bearings repacked, brakes replaced and extensive caulking done to the rig. The repair of the fiberglass panel that had separated from the undercarriage turned out to be a fairly inexpensive job. The most expensive item was the replacement of all four trailer tires which had taken a beating during our Alaskan adventure. The caulking job required power-washing the trailer first so, when we left the dealership on Saturday, our rig looked much better than it had when we arrived.

On Saturday, November 3rd, we drove 20 miles to Anchor Down RV Resort near Dandridge, TN where we stayed eight nights. Anchor Down is a beautiful RV resort with outstanding vistas overlooking Douglas Lake. We had originally only reserved four nights (Sunday through Wednesday) but, after our repairs were completed on Friday at RVs for Less, we added Saturday night. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to reserve the same site so we spent Saturday night in site 152 before moving to site 125 on Sunday morning. On Sunday morning we went ahead and extended our stay for an additional three nights.

On Tuesday we drove through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to reach the 5.5 mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The road was very narrow and winding in spots, definitely not designed for our dually tires, but we managed to only clip our tires on the rocks a few times. We were not obviously the only people who decided to drive the Motor Nature Trail as the road was quite crowded. The foliage appeared to be at peak fall color, despite it being several weeks after the usual peak for fall color in the Smokies. We pulled off the road several times to enjoy the scenery. We stopped to examine the Bales homestead where Ephraim and Minerva Bales raised their nine children in a two-room cabin from about 1890 to 1930. While exploring the Bales’ barn, we encountered a flock of wild turkey.

The weather got considerably cooler and wetter for the balance of the week, causing us to limit our outdoor activities somewhat. On Sunday, November 11, we drove 145 miles to Chattanooga, TN where we spent eight nights at Raccoon Mountain Campground. We had stayed at this campground two years earlier. We had a long pull-through site on the edge of the property. The campground was largely empty for most of our stay but filled up a lot for the weekend.

The first several days and nights were extremely rainy and the ground around our site became quite saturated. Fortunately our rig and truck were parked on hard-packed gravel that kept us above the puddles.  On Wednesday the rain had largely stopped so we ventured out to downtown Chattanooga to do some shopping. We would have done more exploring but the weather was uncomfortably cold and windy.

By Thursday the weather cleared up and the temperatures rose to a more pleasant level. We decided to take a drive and headed out to the Ocoee Scenic Byway. This 26-mile byway, the nation’s first National Forest Scenic Byway, travels along the rocky bluffs of the Ocoee River Gorge. The Ocoee River attracts lots of whitewater enthusiasts and is one of the busiest rafting rivers in the world. We stopped briefly at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, home to the 1996 Olympic Canoe/Kayak Shalom competition.

On Saturday, while we were waiting for our clothes to dry in the laundry room, we hiked a portion of the campground’s hiking trail. The trail was quite steep and not particularly well-marked but it provided us with a good workout. We were sorry we had to turn back before completing the climb but we only had 40 minutes on the dryers.

On Sunday we visited the Chattanooga Market where we visited lots of booths selling a variety of foods and crafts.

On Monday, November 19th, we drove 144 miles to Goodlettsville, TN where we spent six nights at the Nashville North KOA. That evening we picked up Jason and met Jarrod and Jess for dinner at Lockeland Table. The dinner was a celebration of Jason’s 36th birthday as well as a Bon Voyage for Jarrod and Jess, who depart for their Australian adventure on Wednesday.

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On Tuesday we worked on getting our food for Thanksgiving. Given the limited cooking space in our RV, our initial idea was to order take-out from Cracker Barrel. However, when Jan called to place the order, she learned that all the local Cracker Barrels were already sold out of take-out orders. We then considered dining in at Cracker Barrel but learned that there is often a multi-hour wait to be seated there on Thanksgiving. We finally decided to get a ham from Honey-Baked Ham. We learned our lesson from this experience and will be ordering our Christmas meal well in advance.

On Wednesday we dropped Jarrod and Jess off at the Nashville airport. After a week visiting friends in Los Angeles, they were headed off for several months in Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia. They were kind enough to let us use their car during the balance of our stay in Nashville. After a few days of navigating our one-ton Ram dually through the narrow streets of Nashville in heavy traffic, we were very grateful to have a smaller vehicle.

On Thursday Jason came over and we celebrated Thanksgiving at home. We dined on our ham and a multitude of side dishes. Although we were all quite stuffed, we each found room for a slice of Phil’s first homemade pecan pie.

Pecan pie

On Friday night we picked up Jason and drove downtown to watch the Nashville Christmas tree lighting. Several choirs performed prior to the tree lighting and various city officials spoke. Although rain had been forecast to hold off until later that evening, it began to drizzle as the last choir performed. The actual tree lighting occurred as the rain grew harder. Fortunately we had worn our rain jackets and brought our umbrellas. After the tree lighting, we stayed downtown and went to Demos’ restaurant to celebrate Jan’s birthday.

It rained the rest of Friday night and most of Saturday. Jason came over on Saturday afternoon for a dinner of gumbo and cornbread. On Sunday afternoon we visited two Christmas craft fairs, the Fort Houston holiday market and the Vintage holiday market.

On Monday evening we went with Jason to watch the Nashville Predators play the Buffalo Sabres at Bridgestone Arena. We stopped downtown at Oscar’s Taco Shop for a quick dinner before the game. Although we were seated in the upper section of the arena, we had a good view of the ice hockey game. The Predators won 2-1. The game was very exciting and Buffalo had numerous opportunities to tie the score in the last few minutes.

On Friday, December 7th, we went to see the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, known as the “mother church of country music.” The lineup included performances by Emmylou Harris, Toby Keith and many others. All the performers were very good. We dined at Oscar’s Taco Shop again before the show.

Upon returning home, we discovered that our furnace was not operating.  The fan was on but there was no heat.  We have the Cheap Heat system that is designed to allow us to run our furnace using electricity, rather than propane.  We had used electric heat almost exclusively for the last three years without any problems.  It appears that the thermocouple in the heating coil had burned out.  Fortunately we were able to switch over to heating with propane but this was not a condition we wanted to live with long-term, especially since the nighttime lows were in the 20s.  Phil called and arranged to get the Cheap Heat system repaired at our dealer in Knoxville on Dec. 18th.

On Saturday, Jan got together with Lori Davis for a “girls afternoon out.” They had brunch at The Sutler.

On Tuesday evening we returned to Bridgestone Arena with Jason to watch another Nashville Predators game. This time it was against the Ottawa Senators and the Predators won 3-1. Once again we dined at Oscar’s Taco Shop before the game.

On Wednesday afternoon Jan met Linda Forrest and Pam Bogle at BrickTops for lunch.  On Thursday, December 14th, Jan decorated our home for Christmas.

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That evening, we went to the Douglas Corner Café to see Levon perform. Levon is a country trio that is under contract with Sony Music’s Columbia Nashville and Epic Records. One member of the group, Ryan Holladay, is from Jan’s hometown, Camden, TN. They are outstanding musicians and harmonize beautifully.

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Tennessee Bound! (September 29 – October 17, 2018)

On Saturday, September 29th, we began our quick trip across the Western and Midwestern U.S. to visit family again in Nashville and get repairs done on our truck and RV. Our first drive was 244 miles to Richland, WA where we spent two nights at Horn Rapids RV Park. Although hilly, the drive was fairly easy after we got past Seattle. The RV park was quite large and nicer than most we’ve visited. Although it was rather cool and breezy, Phil was able to give our rig a long-overdue washing.

On Monday, October 1st, we drove 268 miles to Caldwell, ID where we spent two nights at Ambassador RV Resort. At about 9 am on Tuesday morning, Phil discovered that our bathroom door was locked from the inside. The lock had always been difficult to open and, as a result, we never locked the door. However, the lock had been getting loose in recent days and it appears that it must have shifted into a locked position by accident. We spent the next couple of hours trying to unlock the door but with no success. We attempted to remove the hinges on the door but this also proved unsuccessful. When we called the manufacturer, we learned that the hinges were not removable. Finally, we called a locksmith and had to wait an hour for his arrival. Fortunately the campground bathrooms were nearby and very clean. The locksmith had no more success than we’d had so we told him he was free to drill off the old lock. Even after drilling off the handle, he still had a hard time disengaging the lock mechanism. After the locksmith left, we drove into Caldwell and bought a new door lock at True Value. We believe the new lock is of higher quality than the original.

On Wednesday we drove 317 miles to Logan, UT where we stayed at Traveland RV Park. We had some difficulty finding the RV park since it was tucked behind a Quality Inn. We could see the RVs parked there but had to circle around the neighborhood before we finally found the entrance. We managed to get set up before the rains began but, once they started, they continued almost non-stop for the two days. During one slack period, Phil managed to set up the grill but ended up grilling our steak in the rain. The lousy weather was most unfortunate because the little we saw of Logan was quite lovely.

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Buddy, our bonsai, enjoyed the view from our campsite

On Friday we drove 285 miles to Rawlins, WY where we spent the night at the Rawlins KOA. We had originally planned to spend two nights in Rawlins but the nighttime lows were below freezing and the forecast for Saturday night was calling for 1-3 inches of snow and slick highways on Sunday. The first 100 miles of our drive as we left Utah was through the canyons and, although winding and hilly, was quite beautiful. However, the rest of the trip was on the interstate and took us across wide open plains.

On Saturday we got an early start. The temperature was only 31 degrees when we were packing to go but, fortunately, the sun made it feel somewhat warmer. We drove 250 miles, all on I-80, to Sidney, NE. The weather was clear for most of the drive but, shortly after passing Laramie, WY, we ran into thick fog. We exited the interstate for a rest stop but the sign was covered with snow and we made a wrong turn. Fortunately we found a parking lot about a mile down the road and were able to get turned around. We inquired about the fog at the information counter in the rest stop and were told we would be in the fog for a long time. We could see semis continuing down the interstate so we decided to give it a go. When one of the semis left the rest stop, we followed closely behind him and were able to follow his taillights until the fog cleared. Fortunately the man at the information booth was wrong and the fog cleared within a few miles.

We spent the night at the Cabella’s RV Park in Sidney, NE where we had stayed in June 2017. The RV park is first come, first serve but we were able to get a good spot when we arrived around 4 pm. The RV park is next to a Cabella’s store and across the parking lot from the Cabella’s corporate headquarters. We learned that the Cabella’s corporation had been bought out by Bass Pro Shops in early 2018 and the loss of so many corporate jobs in such a small town had led to seriously depressed real estate market and local economy. We contributed to the economy by dining at Margaritas Family Mexican restaurant. The food was delicious, very filling, and, based on the largely Hispanic clientele, authentic Mexican cooking.

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Chairs at Margaritas Family Mexican restaurant

It rained most of the night and we packed up Sunday morning in a light drizzle. We continued our drive across Nebraska with another 260 miles on I-80. It rained for most of the drive but stopped long enough for us to get set up at the Grand Island, NE KOA where we stayed for two nights. The name of the campground was somewhat deceptive as the town of Grand Island was nine miles away. The forecast had called for rain and thunderstorms for the entire stay but, fortunately, it only rained hard at night. Due to the lousy weather, we didn’t do anything all day on Monday except grocery shopping and laundry.

On Tuesday, October 9th, we drove 265 miles through steady rain to Adel, IA where we spent two nights at the Des Moines West KOA. Again, the name of the campground was deceptive as it is over 20 miles from Des Moines.

Over the previous week we had begun to experience a lot of problems with our fresh water tank. When we were hooked up to campground water, some of the water would bypass the check valve and find its way into the fresh water tank. This meant that we needed to drain the fresh tank almost entirely each time we needed to drive. When the weather gets below freezing, we need to disconnect the hose from the campground water and just use the water in the fresh water tank. Unfortunately, our water pump started running for a few seconds each minute, even when the water wasn’t running. This would generally indicate that we had a leak somewhere but we couldn’t find one. We had added these issues to our list of repairs to be addressed at our dealer on October 29th. However, the problem became a bigger issue before we could get there. About half way through our drive to Adel, IA, we stopped at a rest area and Jan noticed that about an 8-foot section of the door side panel had pulled away from the undercarriage. We were able to drive the rest of the way to our campground and had to wait until the rain stopped before we could better inspect the damage. It appears that the subflooring had gotten waterlogged from the water leak and this extra weight had forced out the screws holding the paneling in place. In addition, a pipe that can be used to hook up to the propane tanks had pulled out from the flooring. Phil crawled under our rig and took some pictures to send to the dealer. He also wired the pipe in place to keep it secured until we can get to the dealer. It’s times like this that we miss having a house! We had planned to stay at a Corp of Engineers park after leaving Pella but, since they don’t have water at the sites, we would have had to rely entirely on our fresh water tank and our water pump for three days. With that out of the question, we had to find another campground for our next stop.

With all the rainy weather, we had not been able to do any sightseeing since we left Washington. After doing what we could do to address the damage, we decided to drive 16 miles to Winterset, IA and visit the John Wayne museum and birthplace. Winterset turned out to be a lovely little town that has retained much of its heritage.

We also visited the Winterset visitor center and got a map showing the locations of the covered bridges made famous by the 1995 film The Bridges of Madison County, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. We visited four of the bridges.

On Thursday we drove 70 miles to Kellogg, IA where we stayed for three nights at the Kellogg RV Park. The RV park is tucked behind a Phillips 66 gas station but had long pull-through sites and full hookups.

On Friday morning, Phil woke up at 5:40 am and drove to Oskaloosa, IA for a 7 am appointment at Kelderman Manufacturing for repair of our truck’s rear suspension air bags that were damaged when we were in the Yukon. In the afternoon we drove to Grinnell, IA. We walked around the historic downtown district and visited the Merchants National Bank building. The bank building is one of eight Midwestern “jewel-box” banks designed by Louis Sullivan, legendary American architect and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. It was constructed in 1914 and has been a National Historic Landmark since 1976. In 1999, the bank building was taken over by the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce.

This date represented our third anniversary of being full-time RVers. When we started our adventure, we committed to at least three years so we wouldn’t give up prematurely if we ran into problems. Over the past three years, we have covered about 37,000 miles. Although we’ve faced the occasional challenge (especially recently), overall we’ve loved our experience and don’t see us bringing this lifestyle to a conclusion any time soon. We will probably cut back somewhat on our mileage but aren’t ready to come off the road.

On Sunday, October 14th, we drove 306 miles to St. Peters, MO where we spent two nights at St. Peters 370 Lakeview Park. Although only the first 70 miles were on I-80, the rest of the drive was on a divided highway that was actually quite a bit smoother than the interstate. We had stayed at St. Peters 370 Lakeview Park three years earlier and had struggled to get into a back-in site. This time we had reserved a pull-through site and it was much easier. Unlike three years earlier, the weather was quite cold and we were unable to enjoy the walkway around the lake. Other than doing laundry and making a trip to Sam’s Club and WalMart, we didn’t do much on Monday.

On Tuesday we drove 198 miles to Paducah, KY where we spent the night at Fern Lake Campground. The campground was nothing special but we had a pull-through site within ¼ mile of the interstate, all we really needed for an overnight stay. We walked across the road to El Torito for an outstanding Mexican dinner.

On Wednesday we completed our drive to Tennessee by driving 147 miles to Nashville.

Resting and Waiting in the Pacific Northwest (September 3 – 28, 2018)

On Labor Day, September 3rd, we drove 156 miles from Merritt, BC to Blaine, WA where we stayed at Lighthouse by the Bay RV Resort for 17 days. Blaine is in the extreme northwest corner of Washington state, only 35 miles from Vancouver, BC. Although the campground has a Blaine address, we were only a short walk from Birch Bay on the Pacific Coast.

Our reason for hanging out in Blaine was twofold. First, we wanted to relax and catch up on cleaning and maintenance after our hectic travel throughout the summer. Second, we wanted to meet up with our son, Jarrod, and his fiancé, Jess, when they completed their hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. The terminus of the PCT is at Manning Park, BC, just over the Canadian border from western Washington.

After getting set up upon our arrival at the campground on Labor Day, we walked down to the beach at Birch Bay. The beach was quite rocky, which made it somewhat difficult to walk along. We passed a little restaurant and ice cream shop near the beach and made plans to return there in the coming days.

On Tuesday we drove to Bellingham to do some shopping at Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Fred Meyer and TJ Maxx. After a summer of shopping at mostly small stores, it was good to have access to a greater variety of goods. We also enjoyed refueling the truck for $3.14 a gallon, about $1.50 a gallon less than the average of what we’d paid in Canada. However, the downside of being back in civilization was that the traffic in Bellingham was much worse than what we’d experienced all summer.

On Wednesday we decided to return to the Birch Bay ice cream shop but found that the business was closed for the season and wouldn’t reopen until mid-May 2019. We tried a couple of other shops that advertised ice cream but they were either closed or out of ice cream. We ended up walking along Birch Bay and visiting the Visitor Center.

Our DirecTV service, which we had suspended in early June, was reinstated on Wednesday and we were glad to have access to television again.

On Thursday Phil climbed up on the roof and applied a large amount of sealant around the base of the satellite dish. We had several days of light rain after that and did not experience our roof leak. We are optimistic that the problem has been solved but we’ll reserve final judgment until we have some heavier rainstorms.

Phil discovered that the Blaine – Birch Bay Rec Center offers pickleball almost every day. He played for about two hours each day on Friday and Saturday. After not playing since April, his body was quite sore afterward and he struggled to get around the rest of the weekend. Undaunted, he returned to play on Monday.

On Tuesday, September 11, we drove into Blaine to hit the post office and grocery store. We decided to visit Peace Arch State Park on the US-Canada border. Phil got into the wrong lane and ended up going through Canadian Customs. The Canadian border guard gave us directions to the Canadian side of the park. However, there was no parking on the Canadian side so we had to return through US customs. When we arrived at the park, we discovered there was a $10 per person admission so we left without visiting the arch. Instead, we drove to the Blaine Marine Park where we could see the arch across the bay for free.

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Peace Arch with slogan “Children of a Common Mother”

On Wednesday, September 19th, we drove to Lynden, WA to do some sightseeing and grocery shopping. Lynden was established in 1874 and saw significant Dutch immigration in the early and mid 1900s. Lynden pays homage to its Dutch heritage through locations such as buildings on Front Street, where some of the businesses have been made over with a Dutch theme, complete with a windmill.

On Friday, we drove 90 miles to Sunshine Valley, BC where we spent three nights at Sunshine Valley RV Resort. The campground was situated in a valley surrounded by steep and heavily wooded hillsides. On Saturday, Phil drove into Hope, BC to refuel and do some grocery shopping. Jan worked on a sign to welcome Jarrod and Jess at the end of their hike and prepared the celebration dinner.

On Sunday, September 23rd, we drove about 30 minutes to Manning Park and waited near the terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for Jarrod and Jess to arrive. After waiting for a couple of hours, we saw a large group of hikers arrive at the end of the trail. They let us know Jarrod and Jess were just a few minutes behind them. When they arrived, it marked the completion of their 2,650 mile hike that had begun near the Mexican border on April 25th. After lots of hugs and pictures, we drove to the Manning Park Lodge and had a large lunch with a group of about 10 hungry PCT hikers. Later that evening, we had spaghetti, garlic bread, lemon cake and ice cream with Jarrod and Jess to celebrate their PCT completion. We had originally intended to leave Sunshine Valley the following morning but decided to stay another night.

On Monday, we drove to the Coquihalla Valley and hiked the Othello Tunnel Trail. In the late 1800s the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) faced competition from American railroads to establish a line to the mineral rich Kootenays. With CPR sponsorship, the Kettle Valley Railway built a line through the Coquihalla Pass in 1913-1916. The line used a 2.2% grade over most of the 36 mile climb from near sea level at Hope to the 3,646 foot Coquihalla summit. But only four miles from Hope, the Coquihalla River presented a straight walled canyon. The railway construction required 14 tunnels and cost five times the average cost per mile at that time. The canyon between tunnels one and two was used in the filming of the Sylvester Stallone film “Rambo: First Blood.” After hiking through the tunnels, we drove into Hope where many other scenes in First Blood were filmed.

On Tuesday we drove 91 miles to Surrey, BC where we spent two nights at Pacific Border RV Park, right by the US border crossing. On Wednesday we took the SkyTrain into Vancouver. Jarrod and Jess spent the afternoon with a couple that they had hiked with on the PCT while we explored Vancouver on our own. We first went to Gastown, the original settlement that became the core of Vancouver, for lunch. We finished our lunch in time to watch the steam clock, one of the few in the world, signal 3 o’clock with a musical tune and a toot from each whistle. Then we walked along the Vancouver waterfront. We had intended to walk to Stanley Park but, as we walked past Canada Place, we saw a bicycle rental shop with a tandem bike. The store clerk suggested we try out the tandem bike first since he said many people don’t like them. After testing it, we decided to give it a go. We ended up riding the tandem bike for 1 ½ hours through Stanley Park. After returning our bike, we met Jarrod and Jess for our return trip on the SkyTrain.

On Thursday we drove 163 miles to Gig Harbor, WA where we spent two nights at Gig Harbor RV Resort. The drive was fairly easy. We got through US Customs with only a few questions and only had to deal with heavy traffic when we drove through Seattle. We had expected to have a back-in site in Gig Harbor but were relieved to find that we were able to get a pull-through site. That evening we had dinner at Tide Tavern on the Water and the weather was perfect for sitting outside on the deck.

On Friday morning we drove Jarrod and Jess to SeaTac Airport for their flight back to Nashville. We spent the afternoon getting ready to begin our long trip back to the Midwest.

Heading South to the Lower 48 (August 16 – September 3, 2018)

On Thursday we left Haines and backtracked 250 miles to Whitehorse, YT where we spent two nights at Pioneer RV Park. Since we had covered this entire route the previous week, we didn’t make many stops along the way. We had stayed at Pioneer RV Park with our caravan in late June and it had been a bad experience, with our rigs parked so close together that we could barely extend our steps. Fortunately, this time we got a much better site and had an adequate amount of room.

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View of Dezadeash Lake on drive to Whitehorse

We had spent a couple of days in late June exploring Whitehorse with the caravan group so there really weren’t too many of the major attractions left for us to see. We returned to the fish ladder that we had visited before. In June, we were told that the peak salmon run would be in mid-August but, unfortunately, we only saw a few salmon on our return visit. We next stopped at the Visitor Center and inquired about walking tours. We were told there was one starting from the MacBride Museum at 12:30 so we hurried down several blocks to the museum. However, when we arrived, we learned that the tour had been at 11:30. So, we returned to the Visitor Center and got a map of downtown Whitehorse and did our own walking tour. We stopped at the Old Log Church, the original Anglican Church in Whitehorse. We also walked by the Log Skyscraper, the Yukon’s first skyscraper dating to the Alaska Highway construction years. We had lunch of halibut fish and chips from one of the many food trucks parked on Main Street. Next we strolled along the waterfront and visited the railroad depot.

We spent much of the rest of the afternoon doing our grocery shopping for the coming weeks since it might be a while before we see another large grocery store. Not only did they charge for plastic bags, they also charged a dollar to get a shopping cart. Phil had to watch some other shoppers to figure out how that worked. You had to insert a loonie (Canadian dollar) into a box on the handle and this would release a chain that held the cart in place. Then, when you returned your cart to the collection point and reconnected the chain, you got your loonie back. It was actually a rather ingenious way to ensure that carts get returned, rather than leaving them in the parking lot.

On Saturday we had a short drive of only 105 miles on the Alaska Highway to Teslin, YT where we spent the night at the Yukon Motel. This was one of the campgrounds we had stayed at with the caravan during our drive to Alaska. We had no cell service but were able to access the campground wifi.

On Sunday we drove another 166 miles on the Alaska Highway to Watson Lake, YT where we stayed at the Baby Nugget RV Park. Again, this was one of the campgrounds we had stayed at during our drive to Alaska. At this campground, we had no cell service and the only wifi was in the laundry room. We drove into town to do some grocery shopping and refuel the truck. While in town, we visited the Sign Post Village and searched for the sign that our Adventure Treks group had nailed up there in June. We had not accompanied the group when they hung the sign and, although we searched for it a long time in June, we had never found it. This time we had a picture that our tail gunner had posted on Facebook. Jan was able to locate the row by analyzing the background in the photo and Phil found the sign itself.

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Adventure Treks sign in Sign Post Village

The following morning, as we were preparing to depart, we began to experience electrical problems with the truck. The first message on the dashboard display said that the left turn signal was out. A few minutes later we got a message that the parking light was out. Over the next few hours most of the lights on the rear of the truck failed, including the other turn signal, brake light and the license plate light. The Parking Sensor, which notifies Phil if he is about to back into something, also failed. Fortunately, the turn signals and brake lights on the trailer still worked so we felt OK with driving.

We had heard a lot about the forest fires that were raging throughout British Columbia and could already smell the smoke as we left Watson Lake. Instead of returning the way we came (on the Alaska Highway), we had decided to return via the Cassiar Highway. This highway has the reputation of being extremely beautiful but the smoke hindered our ability to fully enjoy the beauty.

On Monday, August 20th, we drove 200 miles to Iskut, BC where we spent the night at Red Goat Lodge. The road was much rougher than we had anticipated and the smoke was especially bad for about an hour around Dease Lake.

The campground setting was by the edge of the Iskut River and this provided beautiful reflections of the surrounding mountains. However, the campground was extremely rustic and needed a lot of work. When Phil initially went in to register, the man in the office was not very helpful and just told Phil to drive around and pick out whatever site we wanted. We found a good length pull-through site that was easy to get into but, as we discovered the next morning, was not easy to get out of. That evening we strolled along the river and enjoyed the scenery. Phil spoke to the woman in the office and learned that our next destination, Hyder, AK, was smoke-free. However, she also told Phil that the worst of the smoke was still ahead of us. She said that Prince George, BC was the worst area but the smoke had extended all through Washington and Oregon.

The following morning was quite stressful. Phil examined underneath the truck and found that the hose that holds a bundle of electric wires running to the rear of the truck had a large hole in it. Next, after we had hitched up, Jan noticed that one corner to the hitch appeared to have pulled up from the bed of the truck. We decided to unhitch so that Phil could tighten the bolt but the hitch would not disconnect. Finally, after several failed attempts, we tried pulling the rig forward a bit and then the hitch did disconnect. After Phil tightened the bolt on the hitch, we reconnected the rig and then performed our usual testing of the trailer’s lights. Unfortunately, the left turn signal now wasn’t working and only the right brake light would light. Our next adventure came when we attempted to exit our campsite. There was a tree blocking us from making a sharp left out of our site. However, it appeared that we might be able to get out by going forward through another campsite, although this required going through a bit of a ditch. Unfortunately, we found that there was another tree that prevented us from exiting this path. By working the rig back and forth, we were finally able to back out onto the road. However, one of the mud flaps get snagged in the ditch and ripped off. All in all, it was a terrible start to the day. Since the campground had no cell service nor wifi, we had no choice but to head on down the road and hope for the best.

Fortunately, the 200-mile drive to Hyder, AK was much smoother than the previous day’s, even though we had to stop three times for single-lane construction zones. The scenery was beautiful but the winding road made for a tiring drive. We arrived at Camp Run-A-Muck at about 4 pm PDT and managed to fit into our pull-through site without too much challenge.

As predicted, the air was pretty clear and there was only a slight whiff of smoke. We had reserved our spot for three days but, rather than take a leisurely drive through BC over the coming weeks, we immediately decided to extend our stay in Hyder to a full week and then make a quicker drive through BC back to the Lower 48. Although we had no cell service and very poor wifi at the campground, we had picked up a strong cell signal when we drove through Stewart, BC which was just a few miles prior to reaching Hyder. During the first couple of days, we drove into Stewart to access the Internet and this required going through the Canadian border crossing each time. We subsequently learned that we could get a cell signal in Hyder if we drove over a long bridge to the boat launch.

Hyder only has a population of 100 and touts itself as the “friendliest ghost town in Alaska.” Stewart, BC is slightly larger, with a population of 500. Hyder was originally called Portland City but was renamed when the U.S. Postal Authority told residents there were already too many U.S. cities named Portland. Both towns got their starts in 1898 with the Gold Rush. Hyder boomed with the discovery of rich silver veins in the upper Salmon River basin in 1917-1918. At the peak in the 1920s, the area had a population of 10,000. Both communities are located at the head of the 90 mile long Portland Canal, the fourth longest fjord in the world.

On Wednesday we drove to the service station in Stewart to see if they could fix the truck. We learned that they only do tire repairs but they did give us a referral to a local mechanic, Wade Bursey, who has a garage behind his house. Wade took a look at the broken wires and discovered the cause. An iron clamp on the rear suspension had cracked when we hit a large pothole. When the clamp broke, the pressure drove the leaf springs upward and through the wiring bundle. Wade thought he could fix the wiring but couldn’t get to it until Thursday at noon. We attempted to find a rental car but the Hertz franchise, operating out of the ice cream shop, only had one car left at the end of the season and it was unavailable.

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Broken clamp from truck’s leaf springs

On Thursday morning we drove to the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site to see if there were any bears feeding on the spawning salmon. We saw many chub and pink salmon in the creek and lagoon but no bears. We were not terribly surprised since there had been few bears spotted this season. Since salmon die after they return to their spawning grounds, there were a large number of dead fish in the water. The chub salmon were quite large, averaging between 30-40 inches in length.

At about noon we drove into Stewart and Jan attempted unsuccessfully to rent a car while Phil took the truck to Wade’s garage. Phil sat there for a couple of hours while Wade struggled to fix another vehicle. Jan had lunch in Stewart and explored the little bit of downtown. Phil left to drive Jan back to the campground and, when he returned, Wade was ready to work on the truck but said that it wouldn’t be finished until the next morning. Although Phil had been prepared to hike the four miles back to the campground, Wade was nice enough to give him a ride.

Later that afternoon we had our first campfire in almost three years of RVing, in large part due to free firewood.

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Phil by campfire

On Friday morning, we walked up to the border crossing to call Wade to see if the truck was ready. After three unanswered calls, Jan spotted Wade’s truck driving by us. He had driven to the campground to get Phil. We were able to flag Wade down as he drove back to Stewart and get Phil a ride back to the garage. Phil learned that the truck was ready and, although Wade was unable to replace the broken clamp on the leaf springs, he did repair the 17 broken wires so we now had lights on the back of the truck. Phil later called the Ram dealer in Smithers, BC to see if they could finish the repair job when we were there the following Wednesday. The dealer was booked out until after Labor Day but said he would see what he could do when we come in on Wednesday.

On Saturday, August 25th, we returned in the morning to the Fish Creek site but, again, saw no bears. We then drove out to the boat launch to access the Internet. The skies were overcast and Jan got some great pictures of the harbor with heavy cloud cover.

On Saturday evening we returned to the Fish Creek site and, this time, we hit pay dirt. About ten minutes after we arrived, an adolescent grizzly (3-5 years old) showed up and stuck around for 75 minutes. He consumed a large number of chum salmon, both dead and alive, and then started playing by tearing apart a number of small trees on the creek bank.

On Sunday we drove up the Salmon Glacier Road. Salmon Glacier is the world’s largest road accessible glacier. We had gotten a self-guided auto tour guidebook from the Visitor Center and it explained various points of interest along the route. The road is unpaved after the Fish Creek viewing area so we had to drive very slowly over the next 11 miles to the Toe of Salmon Glacier viewpoint. Given the damage to the truck’s suspension, we drove very slowly over the washboard roads and attempted to miss as many potholes as possible. It took us about an hour each way as we drove between 6-14 mph. We opted not to drive the last six miles to the Salmon Glacier summit.

On Monday we walked through the town of Hyder. For the most part, the town is quite dilapidated. More than a few of the residences consist of walls built around old RVs or mobile homes. There were a number of signs and displays on the residences that demonstrated that the locals have a sense of humor. We had lunch at “The Bus,” whose owner has been selling seafood caught by her husband and son for 20 years. We had halibut fish and chips and a cup of chowder. Everything was delicious.

Monday evening we returned to the Fish Creek observation site and, again, were rewarded with the site of a large grizzly. It initially swam around in the lagoon and, occasionally, would splash the water with his paws and capture a large chub salmon to eat. When he’d had his fill of salmon, he pulled down tree branches along the bank and feasted on berries. Next, he strolled up the creek right below the boardwalk out to the parking lot. We were able to walk along the boardwalk for about 100 yards while the grizzly was only about 20 feet away. It was an amazing experience.

On Tuesday we had to pack up in the rain and hit the road, leaving Alaska for the final time. We drove 220 miles to Telkwa, BC where we spent two nights at the Fort Telkwa RV Park. When Phil had made the reservation, the owner had told him that the back–in sites were much better than the pull-throughs. She had offered to have her husband help get us backed into our site. When we arrived at the campground, Phil was surprised to learn that the “help” actually consisted of the husband jumping in the truck and parking it himself. We were glad we had taken the back-in site as we had a great view of the Buckley River out our living room window.

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View from our living room window

On Wednesday Phil drove to the Ram dealer in Smithers, about 10 miles away. When he took the broken clamp into the parts department, he learned that it was not a Ram part. It seems to have been part of the Kelderman rear suspension upgrade we had installed in Iowa in May. This will mean contacting Kelderman for a solution. The good news was that the two micro fuses Phil was able to buy for $3.50 solved the remaining electrical problems we were having. One fuse brought back our rear camera and parking sensor. The other fuse solved our more critical issue; the trailer’s left turn signal and brake lights are now working.

We then took a nature hike along the Bulkley River. This area is known as Steelhead Paradise and there were many fishermen fly fishing in the river. When we reached town, we decided to have ice cream for lunch. The town of Telkwa, with a population of 1,500, was established in 1906 and many of the original buildings have been retained and restored.

On Thursday, August 30th, we drove 235 miles to Prince George, BC where we spent the night at Northern Experience RV Park. The only sightseeing stop we made along the way was in Houston, BC where we stopped to see the World’s Largest Fly Rod. The rod is constructed entirely of aluminum and is anodized bronze to simulate graphite. The rod is 60 feet tall and weighs 800 lbs. The smoke level along the drive was quite low and a strong breeze that evening kept the air quality very good.

On Friday morning the smoky skies had returned. We drove 145 miles to Williams Lake, BC where we spent two nights at the Stampede Campground. As we drove through Quesnel, we passed the World’s Largest Gold Pan. The campground in Williams Lake was connected to the Stampede stadium where they hold a major rodeo event in early July.

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World’s Largest Gold Pan

On Saturday morning the air was smokier than usual but not bad enough to keep us indoors. We went to the Scout Island Nature Centre and hiked the Island Trail. Much of the trail near the end of the island was overgrown so we had to blaze our own trail for much of the way. The air cleared later in the afternoon and we were able to sit outside and enjoy the blue sky.

On Sunday we drove 210 miles to Merritt, BC where we stayed overnight at the community-operated Claybanks RV Park. Our only stop of note was at a rest area overlooking Kamloops Lake. When we arrived at the campground, we were surprised to learn that we had been assigned to a back-in site rather than the pull-through we had requested. However, we managed the back-in fairly well.

Monday was Labor Day and the traffic was rather heavy for our 156 mile drive to Blaine, WA. We drove non-stop until we crossed into the United States just a few miles from Blaine. As much as we enjoyed our summer adventure in Alaska and Western Canada, it felt great to be back in the Lower 48 again.

Haines, Juneau and Skagway, Alaska (August 11 – 16, 2018)

On Saturday, August 11th, we drove 145 miles on the Haines Highway from Haines Junction, YT to Haines, AK. The beginning third of the drive was on the smoothest asphalt we’ve driven on in months. Most of the rest was on chip seal but was still pretty easy driving. However, we hit an eight-mile construction zone when we were almost to Haines that required us to follow a pilot car over some extremely rough sections. We made several stops along the highway to enjoy the scenery which was outstanding.

We stopped at a turnout and hiked a half-mile each way up Rock Glacier Trail. Rock glaciers are the result of mountain permafrost creep. The initial part of the trail was along a boardwalk that was quite steep in places. Then we climbed along a rock trail to the summit.

Another stop was at Million Dollar Falls, a Yukon provisional campground. The turnout to the falls was down a narrow road and we had some initial concerns that we may have gotten ourselves into a jam. Fortunately we found room to park and turn around when we reached the campground. We hiked a short distance to a boardwalk that took us to the waterfalls which were quite impressive.

On Sunday we spent the day visiting Juneau. We took the fast ferry that departed Haines at 8:45 am. We traveled down the Lynn Canal which connects Skagway and Haines to Juneau and the rest of the Inside Passage. It was misnamed by Captain Cook, as it is not really a canal. It is actually an inlet formed by the deepest fjord in North America and one of the deepest in the world. During our trip south to Juneau, we saw about 100 bald eagles.

We arrived at Yankee Cove at 11 am and boarded a motorcoach that took us 23 miles to downtown Juneau. Our driver was a long-time resident of Juneau and shared a number of stories about the city. Juneau has a population of 32,000 and is the only state capitol that cannot be reached by road. The major industries are government, mining, tourism and fishing.

When we arrived downtown, there were three massive cruise ships at the wharf, as well as a mid-sized one. We strolled along Franklin St. and visited many of the shops. We stopped for lunch at the Red Dog Saloon.

In the afternoon we climbed the steep hill to the older section of Juneau and saw some of the historic buildings such as St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church (built in 1894), the Governor’s Mansion and the Alaska State Capitol. Some of the older streets are so steep that there are long staircases that connect houses that are built on the hillsides. The weather was overcast with a light drizzle all day but we were thankful that is was not as bad as forecast.

The motorcoach picked us up at 4 pm and took us to Auke Bay where we re-boarded the ferry for our return trip. On the return, we came across a humpback whale and followed it for about 20 minutes.  We were close enough to see the barnacles attached to its tail.

We also cruised beside an island with a pile of about 100 Steller sea lions. Later we saw sea lions sleeping on one of the channel buoys and saw a number of harbor seals on the shore.

As we neared Haines, we passed Eldred Rock Lighthouse. This lighthouse was the last of 10 built in Alaska between 1902 and 1906. It was manned for two-year terms by teams of two Coast Guard lighthouse keepers until it was automated in 1973. We arrived back in Haines at 7:45 pm.

On Tuesday the rain stopped and we did an enjoyable 2.5 hour hike. We had intended to hike the Battery Point Trail near Haines but lost the trail a couple of times. Instead, we ended up walking down the rocky shoreline of Lynn Canal for much of the hike. It was interesting to see the distinct line in the inlet where the gray silty glacier water meets the teal ocean water. We took a rest in a large hut that someone had constructed from driftwood.

On Wednesday we took the fast ferry for a 45-minute ride from Haines to Skagway. When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, Skagway became a very important destination almost overnight. Beginning in July 1897, thousands of hopeful miners arrived in Skagway and prepared for the 500-mile journey to the gold fields in Canada. The population of the general area increased to 30,000, making Skagway the largest city in Alaska. Between 1897 and 1898, Skagway was a lawless town. Fights, prostitutes and liquor were ever-present on Skagway’s streets and con man “Soupy” Smith, who had risen to considerable power, did little to stop it. By 1899, the stream of gold-seekers had diminished and Skagway’s economy began to collapse. Fortunately, much of the history of Skagway was saved by the early residents.

Today, Skagway is largely dependent on tourism. The year-round population is about 1,000 but this doubles in the summertime to deal with more than 900,000 visitors (3/4 of which arrive on cruise ships). The White Pass and Yukon Route is a narrow-gauge railroad that was constructed beginning in 1898 during the gold rush but is now in operation purely for the tourist trade. Upon arriving in Skagway, our first stop was at the Skagway Fish Company where we each had halibut fish and chips for lunch. Then we spent a few hours strolling the historic streets of Skagway and visiting the many shops and historic buildings. There were four large cruise ships docked at the wharf.

 

Return to the Yukon (August 5 – 11, 2018)

Our arrival in Dawson City, YT on Sunday, August 5th, came as a relief after making the challenging drive over the Top of the World highway. We booked a four-night stay at Gold Rush Campground, which is located within a short walk of downtown Dawson City.

Dawson City has a very colorful history. Gold was discovered on Bonanza Creek in August 1896. When word of gold being discovered in the Yukon reached the Lower 48, the Gold Rush began. Many gold seekers initially attempted to carry their goods over the icy Chilkoot Pass, often through blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. Once the Yukon River thawed in May of 1998, hundreds of boatloads of would-be miners arrived day and night. The population grew from 1,500 in spring 1997 to 30,000 two years later. This made Dawson City the biggest city in North America north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. Unfortunately, by the time most of the stampeders arrived, the profitable claims had already been staked and the population dropped to 9,100 by 1900, and to 975 by 1921.  The current population is about 2,100.

The rapid drop in population at the end of the Gold Rush led to the abandonment of buildings rather than their demolition for redevelopment. In the 1960’s, a serious decline in mining caused the community to welcome tourism and invite investment in Dawson City’s heritage. Many of the original buildings have been restored and rehabilitated. Most of the buildings are built on risers due to frost heaves in the permafrost.  The streets are still dirt but there are boardwalks for pedestrians. We spent the first couple of days exploring the town and visiting the many shops.

On Sunday night, we had dinner at Klondike Kate’s. On Monday night, we attended the can-can show at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall. The ticket for admission to Gertie’s was good for the entire summer so, of course, we had to return on Tuesday night to get our money’s worth.

On Tuesday the rain stopped long enough for us to do some exploring outside of downtown. We stopped to see Jack London’s cabin. Jack London had come to the Klondike in 1897 as a prospector.  Disillusioned with gold mining and afflicted with scurvy, he returned to California in 1898.  He later wrote two successful novels about the north, White Fang and Call of the Wild.  His cabin was originally located on Henderson Creek, in the Klondike goldfields.  We next headed up the mountainside for 15 minutes until we reached the peak, known as Midnight Dome. From Midnight Dome we had spectacular views of the Yukon River and Dawson City.

Next we visited the goldfields that started the Gold Rush. We stopped at Dredge No. 4, the largest wooden dredge in the world. Over 46 years, Dredge No. 4 recovered eight metric tons of gold. At top production, almost 50 pounds of gold were recovered every three or four days.

We continued on to Claim No. 6 which has been set up by the Klondike Visitors Association to allow tourists to experience gold panning in the creek. Since we didn’t have gold pans, we tried our luck with cake pans. We found a few small grains that may have been gold but not enough to keep.

On our return trip, we stopped at the Discovery Claim and saw the spot of the big strike that started the Gold Rush. On August 17, 1986, Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and George Carmack were traveling to the Klondike River and, short on food, Jim shot a moose. He went to the creek for a drink and found gold. The three men staked claims to the richest spots they found and George went to Forty Miles to record them.

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Jan at site of the big strike that began the Gold Rush

On Wednesday we did a guided walking tour of historic Dawson City. The tour was entitled “Strange Things Done in the Midnight Sun.” In addition to visiting a number of historic buildings, our guide told little-known stories about real-life residents from the Gold Rush era.

Later we attended a program at the Palace Grand Theater. The three-story theater, which provided entertainment to the miners during the Gold Rush days, has been recently renovated to its original design.

We end our visit to Dawson City with a poem by Robert Service, heralded as the “bard of the Klondike.” Service was a teller for the Canadian Bank of Commerce and lived in Dawson City from 1909 until 1912.

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Robert Service poem on the side of a building

On Thursday, August 9th, we began our 2,500 mile trip southward, back to the Lower 48. We drove 222 miles on the Klondike Highway to Carmarks, YT where we spent the night at the RV park at Hotel Carmacks. With the exception of our Top of the World trek, this was the worst driving experience of our trip. We hit multiple construction zones, several where we had to wait for a pilot car to guide us through unpaved sections. The areas that weren’t under construction needed to be. We had to drive very carefully and slowly through mile after mile of potholes.

As we neared Carmarks, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Five Finger Rapid. During the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, thousands of prospectors navigated their handmade and overloaded boats and rafts 800 miles from Bennett Lake to Dawson City. Five Finger Rapid was a major obstacle along the route and more than a few stampeders ended up in the water  after choosing the wrong channel. Whitehorse-bound sternwheelers had to winch themselves over a 1-2 foot drop in the navigable channel until the underwater obstacle was blasted away.

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After dinner, we strolled along the Yukon River in Carmacks.

On Friday we drove 189 miles to Haines Junction where we spent the night at the RV park adjoining the Fas Gas service station. The first half of the trip was spent on the Klondike Highway and the balance was on the Alaska Highway. Although the roads were not exactly smooth and still had a lot of potholes and frost heaves, the day’s drive was considerably easier than the previous day. The scenery was beautiful.

We stopped at Braeburn Lodge for a cinnamon roll which was large enough for four people. We saved half of it for Saturday. Braeburn Lodge is an official checkpoint for the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and there was dog race paraphernalia all over the walls.

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Cinnamon roll at Braeburn Lodge

Alaska, At Last! (July 2 – August 5, 2018)

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.

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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.

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5 lb. gold nugget

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.

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Phil tossing pancake

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.

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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.

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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.

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Mama grizzly

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.

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Picture of mountain ranges vs. what we could actually see

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.

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Dinner at Latitude 62

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.

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Fishermen on Upper Kenai 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.

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Heritage RV Park

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.