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.
View from Haines Hwy.
View of Kathleen Lake
View along Haines Hwy.
Rig at turnout
View from Haines Hwy.
Glacier near Haines Hwy. summit
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.
Jan at summit of Rock Glacier Trail
Phil on Rock Glacier Trail
View of rock glacier
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.
One of many bald eagles
Bridge of fast ferry
Fast ferry to Juneau
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.
Storefront on Franklin Street
Red Dog Saloon
Red Dog Saloon
Jan in Juneau
Phil in Juneau
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.
Stairway connecting houses built on hillside
View down the hill from Old Juneau
St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church, with Catholic Church in background
Alaska State Capitol
Cruise ships at wharf
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.
Steller sea lions sleeping on buoy
Pile of Steller sea lions on island
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.
Eldred Rock Lighthouse with glacier in background
Eldred Rock Lighthouse
Eldred Rock Lighthouse and boathouse
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.
Selfie in driftwood hut
Glacier water meets ocean water
Phil on trail
Phil on rock
Phil in driftwood hut
Jan on rocks
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.
Streets of Skagway
Street of Skagway
Jan with statue of frustrated prospector
Streets of Skagwat=y
First chapter of Artic Brothrhood, a fraternal organization
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.
Paddleboat on Yukon
Restored SS Keno sternwheeler
Downtown Dawson City street
Downtown Dawson City street
Bonanza Market grocery store
Red Feather Saloon
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.
Monday night at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s
Cancan girls on Monday night
Cancan girls on Tuesday night
Cancan girls with audience participants
Philand Jan with entertainers
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.
Jack London’s cabin
View of Yukon River and Dawson City from Midngiht Dome
Phil and Jan at Midnight Dome
View of Yukon River from Midnight Dome
Phil relaxing at Midnight Dome
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.
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.
Post Office, built in 1902
Red Feather Saloon
Bank of North America office, with gold assayer office in back
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.
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.
After dinner, we strolled along the Yukon River in Carmacks.
Phil on banks of Yukon River
Jan in tou house
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.
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.
Rock throwing bucket
Phil at Rika’s Roadhouse
Interior of Rika’s Roadhouse
Bedroom at Rika’s Roadhouse
Outbuilding with sod roof
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.
Jan in decorative outhouse
Phil in decorative outhouse
Jan and Phil with polar bear
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.
Can can dancers
Pioneer Theatre cast
Pioneer Theatre stage
Phil on salmon
Jan on salmon
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.
Bush pilot landing
Bush pilot taking off
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.
Sled dogs being harnessed for exercise run
Sled dogs cooling off after 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.
Cache where food is stored away from predators
Athabascan fish camp
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.
Animal skin parka
Chena cabin and cache
Two bull moose that died with antlers locked
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.
Dredge digging buckets
Gears inside dredge
Gold Dredge 8
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.
Our combined gold recovery
Jan’s recovered gold
Phil panning for gold
Pay dirt in pan
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.
Barge that plyed Alaska rivers from 1938-1978
Jan and Phil on Alaska bench
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.
Jan and bear
Phil getting smooched by can can girl
Some of cast
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.
Road through park
Dall sheep on hillside
Mama grizzly and cubs
Herd of caribou
Another grizzly sow and cubs
Willow ptarmigan family
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.
Jan and Phil at park sign
Phil on Rock Creek Trail
View from Rock Creek Trail
Flowers on trail
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.
Western path to summit
Phil at Talkeetna sign
Interesting old photograph
Scale model of Denali
Attire of 1913 climber vs. present day climber
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.
Jan climbing Denali
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.
View from Talkeetna Spur
View from near our campground
Posing with some of our fellow travelers
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.
Phil using stereoscope to look at old pictures
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.
Alaska Railroad depot
Float plane landing on Lake Hood
Captain Cook monument
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.
Jan with bear friends
Phil with bear and moose friends
20′ 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.”
Anchorage Festival and Market
Phil in virtual reality
Totem poles from golf bags
Fossils of Alaska and Yukon
Modes of Native Alaskan transport
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.
Raven the Creator
Native Alaskan games
Grey whale bones
Entrance to St. Lawrence Island dwelling
Totem pole from movie
Long house from Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian village site
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.
Jan at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Phil in Fishing Lodge
Fishwalk to Kenai River
World record King Salmon
Phil on Fishwalk
View of Kenai River
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.
Phil and Jan on raft
Crew and guide
Phil on river
Fishermen on Russian River
View up the river
Ducks in river
We saw lots of bald eagles along the route.
Immature bald eagle
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.
Paanaramic view of Mount Iliamna
Phil and Jan with Mount Iliamna in background
Our rig parked at view area
The second viewpoint was as we neared Homer and provided spectacular views of Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond it.
On the road to Homer
Jan at Homer sign
Phil overlooking Kachemak Bay
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.
Fishermen along Homer Spit
Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon
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.
Two Sisters Bakery
View of Homer Spit from East Hill Rd.
Phil on Bishop’s Beach
Phil overlooking Kachemak Bay
Traffic on Homer Spit
Shops along The 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.
Cups Restaurant in downtown Homer
Phil on Circular Hook
Jan at Poopdeck Trail
Phil on Husband’s Waiting Bench
We spent all of Saturday on the spit. First we drove to the very end and walked along the beach.
Phil and Jan on beach
Jan and Phil at end of Homer Spit
A passing fishing charter
Lonely fisherman and his dog
Coast Guard buoy tender
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.
Fish waiting to be processed
Jan, the seal
Phil, the walrus
Campers on the spit
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.
Our dollar bill at the Salty Dawg
Selfie at the Salty Dawg
Inside the Salty Dawg
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.
Steller sea lions
Steller sea lions on rocks
Tunnel carved hrough rocks
Puffins on rocks
Rocky cliffs along Resurrection Bay
Harbor sealalong rocks
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.
Face of Aialik Glacier
Face of Aialik Glacier
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.
Phil on Fox Island
Our cruise boat, Orca
Dead 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.
Jan and Phil at Exit Glacier terminus
View of Exit Glacier
Outwash plain with runoff from glacier
Kenai Fjords NP sign
Diagram of Kenai Fjords National Park
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.
Alaska wildflowers along the Glenn Highway
Phil at Nelchina Glacier
Cinnamon bun at Sheep Mountain Lodge
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.
Worthington Glacier from path
Jan at Horsetail Falls
Phil at Bridal Veil Falls
Guideposts for snowplow operators
Worthington Glacier from highway
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.
Phil at site of old Valdez post office with plaque listing those who died in Good Friday 1964 earhtquake
View of Old Valdez town site
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).
Reflections in pond near Crooked Creek
Phil by Crooked Creek waterfall
Waterfall feeding Crooked Creek
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.
Solomon Gulch Falls
Salmon in spawning stream
Fishermen at nearby Allison Point
Sea lion dining on salmon
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.
First barrelof oil from Trans-Alaska Pipeline System
Model of Exxon Valdez and timeline of disaster
Phil at Exxon Valdez exhibit
After leaving the Museum, we stopped in at the Valdez Visitor Center and took in some sights in downtown Valdez.
Gateway to Valdez
Phil in the hoosegow
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.
Sea otters in bay
Dall porpoises swimming alongside boat
Puffin in cave nest
Sea lions at rest
Sea lions playing
Sea otters on iceberg
Sea otter relaxing at sea
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.
Columbia Glacier from a distance
Columboa Glacier from a distance
Glacier wall close-up
Columbia Glacier close-up
Splash from calving of glacier wall
Phil and Jan at Columbia Glacier
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.
Phil on bridge above Solomon Gulch
Jan at dam
View of lake from dam
View of trail to bay
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.
View from Wrangell-St. Elias NP Visitor Center
Phil in railroad tunnel
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.
Former General Store; used as office space by mining company
Tin roof added by mining company on top of original sod roof
Roadhouse converted to dining hall by mining company
Dining room used by the mining company
Tool shop for mining comapny
Home of 40-year resident sourdough
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.”
Anne Hobb’s schoolroom and living space
Anne Hobb’s living spacewith door to schoolroom
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.
Pedro dredge – moved from Fairbanks to Chicken in pieces
Jan at Pedro dredge
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.
Short paved section leading to border crossing
View from U.S. side
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.
View from Canadian side
Driving into the clouds
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.
View of Dawson City from across the Yukon River
Arctic fox on road
George Blace Ferry that took us across the Yukon River
This completes the first portion of our time in Alaska. After six days in the Yukon, we will return to Alaska in Haines,
On Thursday, June 21st, we drove 82 miles to Dawson Creek, B.C. where we spent two nights at Mile “0” RV Park. Dawson Creek represents mile zero of the Alaska Highway that was constructed in 1942. Our caravan to Alaska was scheduled to begin on the 22nd but we chose to arrive a day early to get some relaxation before the hectic travel schedule commenced.
On the 22nd we drove downtown and got our picture taken at the iconic Alaska Highway sign. We also went to the visitor center and picked up a guide book for the Dawson Creek Historic Walking Tour. We spent the next hour strolling the streets of historic downtown Dawson Creek and enjoyed viewing the many murals and plaques that told the story of life in Dawson Creek in the early 1900s. The Mile “0” Post stands in the middle of downtown as a monument to the beginning of the Alaska Highway. We bought some meat at the Butcher Block, formerly Lawrence’s Meat Packing Co. (established in 1941).
Jan and Phil at Alaska Highway sign
Mile “0” Post
Dawson Creek art gallery
Upon returning to our campsite, we met the two couples who are serving as the Tour Leaders and the Tail Gunners. The tour leaders, in addition to communicating and coordinating each day’s activities, are the first ones to arrive at each new campground and direct the travelers to their respective sites upon arrival. The role of the tail gunners is to be the last ones out of a campground each day and to watch for any members of the caravan who might break down along the route.
Later in the afternoon we met for a group photo at the Alaska Highway sign. Then we went to a local restaurant for a kickoff meeting, followed by a very filling dinner buffet. Although we had met some of our fellow travelers the previous day, this was our first opportunity to meet the entire group with whom we would be traveling for the next 23 days. While almost all of the travelers are retirees, it was interesting to hear the diversity of their backgrounds. Although we believe the vast majority of the group are signed up for a 50-day travel itinerary, we had elected to only travel with the group for 23 days and go as far as Anchorage with them. After we separate from the caravan, we plan to explore more of Alaska on a somewhat slower pace.
One of the requirements of the caravan is that everyone must depart each day between 6 and 9 a.m. This is considerably earlier than we are accustomed to getting going and will force us to get to sleep earlier. That’s easier said than done, especially when the sun hasn’t even set by 10 p.m.
On Saturday morning we left the campground at 8:30 a.m. and drove 282 miles along the Alaska Highway to Fort Nelson, B.C. The highway was fairly smooth and, although it had lots of ups and downs, neither were extremely steep. We made a short detour on a section of the original Alaska Highway to see the Kistatinaw River Bridge, the only wooden bridge from the original highway that is still in use today. We passed through Fort St. John after about 50 miles but, after that, there was little sign of civilization for the balance of the drive. We were very glad to complete the drive, which is the longest day of driving we have planned for the entire summer.
We spent Sunday exploring Fort Nelson. In the morning we visited the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum. The museum contains a number of collections, but the overall theme is transportation because the collection that started it all was an antique car and truck collection started by Marl Brown, the curator. We spent some time chatting with Mr. Brown who was quite a character. The main building houses numerous smaller collections dealing with Canadian history and wildlife. In addition, the museum contains space for historical buildings and artifacts. We wandered into one of the old buildings and realized that we had walked into the middle of a church service so we sat down and stayed for the remainder of the service.
Antique car collection
Phil inside museum
Marl Brown, originator and curator of museum
That afternoon we attended a presentation by the Fort Nelson Visitor Center at the Phoenix Theater. The first part was a slideshow dealing with the construction of the Alaska Highway. Then we watched a 90-minute recording of a 2017 performance celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Alaska Highway. The performance involved individuals who shared how their families lived both before and after the construction of the highway.
On Monday, June 25th, the rains began and stayed with us for two days solid. As we prepared to leave, we discovered that the power reel that has reliably released and retracted our heavy power cord was no longer working. It had worked on Saturday afternoon but now was completely dead. We managed to manually retract the power cord but it wasn’t easy.
We drove 189 miles to Liard Hot Springs where we spent the night at Liard Hot Springs Lodge. It rained heavily most of the way and, although there had been several stops recommended along the route, the rain kept us from doing much more than driving. The fog kept us from seeing much scenery. We did stop at the Toad River Lodge for a fresh baked cinnamon roll. The heavy rain seemed to keep the wildlife largely out of sight but we did see a large herd of wood bison along the road near our campground. The wood bison are a different and larger species than the American bison.
View of Muncho Lake
Herd of Wood Bison
After setting up at the campground at Liard Hot Springs Lodge, we all met to walk over to the Liard Hot Springs despite the fact that it was 50 degrees and raining. As we were waiting, a large wood bison strolled lazily through our campground. The group hiked across the road and down a half-mile boardwalk to the hot springs. Once there, we shed our rain gear and climbed into the warm water. The hot springs are formed when groundwater seeps through the porous limestone of the area and circulates through faults within the earth’s core. There the water warms and accumulates minerals. As pressure builds, the water is forced upwards and eventually resurfaces through cracks in the earth. There was quite a variety of temperatures available to the bathers. At the extreme end, the water was 145 degrees and, at the other end, it was as cool as a swimming pool. It was quite an experience soaking our torsos in the hot water and having cold rain coming down on our heads and shoulders. Of course, getting back out of the hot water and walking back to our rig in the cold rain was not nearly so enjoyable.
Phil in the hot end
The cooler end of the hot springs
Hiking in the rain to the hot springs
That evening the rain continued all night and the leak above our hallway light fixture returned. We thought we had gotten the leak fixed in April and had not had any problems since then.
On Tuesday morning we packed up in the rain and waded through deep puddles to get back on the road. We drove 143 miles to Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory where we spent the night at the Baby Nugget RV Park. Along the way, we stopped at Allen’s Lookout with its sweeping views of the Liard River.
View from Allen’s Lookout
View from Allen’s Lookout
After getting set up, we did our laundry and took advantage of the wifi in the laundry room. We had gone two days without cell service or wifi and were feeling disconnected from the world. Then we drove into the town of Watson Lake where we watched two shows at the Northern Lights Centre. The Northern Lights Centre is designed like a planetarium, with projections on a domed ceiling and reclining chairs. The first show dealt with the sun and the electromagnetic storms that create the northern lights. The second show provided incredible views of the Aurora Borealis from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
After the show, we drove across the road to the Sign Post Forest. The tradition began in 1942 when a US soldier spent time in Watson Lake recovering from an injury. A commanding officer told him to repair and erect the direction signposts, and while completing the job, he added a sign that indicated the direction and mileage to his hometown. Others followed suit and there are now over 77,000 signs in the Forest. The Town of Watson Lake maintains the site, adding more sign posts as they fill up. Our caravan group, Adventure Treks, posted a sign that we had all signed.
Sign with Jan’s maiden name, Schlegel
Another view of the Sign Post Forest
Entrance to the Sign Post Forest
View of a section of the sign post forest
Adventure Treks sign that we signed
On Wednesday morning we woke up to clear skies and drove 147 miles to Teslin, YT where we spent the night at the Yukon Motel RV Park. Although there were some puffy clouds, we loved seeing the blue skies and the scenery was beautiful along the way. We stopped at the Rancheria Falls for a short hike down to the falls. Shortly before arriving at the campground, we spotted a brown bear by the side of the road. The bear decided to dart in front of our truck but managed to sprint across the road before we reached it. Since we couldn’t get into the campground until noon, we stopped and enjoyed the views at the Nisutlin Bay Viewpoint which was directly across the bay from the campground. Then we crossed the Nisutlin Bay Bridge, the longest water span on the Alaska Highway, and checked into our site.
Scenic highway on our drive to Teslin
Another scenic view from the highway
Phil at Rancheria Falls
Bear that decided to run in front of our truck
Nisutlin Bay viewpoint
Wednesday afternoon Phil climbed up on the roof and tightened the bolts on one of the air conditioners to see if that would solve the leak. This had been done in April and had seemingly solved the problem for two months. However we won’t know if the repair worked until next time we have heavy rain.
That evening we had a group wine and cheese party around a campfire. A bald eagle flew directly over us as we sat by the fire.
On Thursday, June 28th, we drove 105 miles to Whitehorse, YT where we spent two nights at Pioneer RV Park. We stopped at Johnson Crossing, on the edge of the Teslin River, for cinnamon buns. We also stopped at M’Clintock Bay, a major bird migratory stop at other times of the year.
Teslin River Bridge
Jan dubbed this one “Dog Mountain”
The fun really began when we arrived at the campground. The sites were so close together that our slide-outs were only inches away from our neighbors’. We had slightly more room on the other side but still had to duck under our slides to get around our rig. Needless to say, there were many unhappy campers.
That afternoon we went to the Beringia Interpretive Centre for a guided tour and film presentation. During the Ice Age, vast glaciers (1-3 miles deep) covered most of northern North America, locking up most of the world’s water as ice. During these glacial periods, global sea levels dropped as much as 100-150 meters, revealing the floor of the Bering Sea and creating a connection between Alaska and Siberia. This land bridge was part of the area now called Beringia. Unlike the rest of North America, the Beringian landscape in the north remained free of ice due to the climate being too dry. The land developed into vast plains of grasses, herbs and flowering plants and became home to grazers such as wooly mammoths and predators such as scimitar cats.
Jan with American Scimitar Cat
As part of the tour, volunteers were given the chance to test the spear-throwing skills using an atlatl, a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity. Phil’s two attempts went in a straight line but failed to achieve much lift.
Phil preparing to throw
Phil launching his spear
On Friday we toured the SS Klondike II, a stern paddleboat that ran freight between Whitehorse and Dawson City along the Yukon River from 1937 and 1950 with a crew of 23. With the construction of a highway between these two towns, many sternwheelers were decommissioned. In an attempt to save Klondike II, she was converted into a cruise ship that held 75 passengers. The venture shut down in 1955 due to lack of interest.
Stern view of SS Klondike
Bow view of SS Klondike
Kitchen and dining room
Jan and Phil at sign
Wood and cargo loaded on SS Klondike
Our next stop was at the Whitehorse Fish Ladder which was built in 1959 to help chinook salmon move past the dam on their way to their spawning grounds. Adult chinook salmon leave the Bearing Sea in early summer and begin a 2,000 mile journey up the Yukon River to the exact location where they were originally spawned several years earlier. They don’t eat during the three months it takes them to swim from the Pacific Ocean to Whitehorse. Only a small percentage survive the journey. Most become victims of predators, starvation or fishing. The survivors continue on to the Upper Yukon tributaries where they, like their parents, spawn and die, completing their life cycle.
At 1,182 feet, the fishway is considered the longest fish ladder in the world. The ladder is built in a series of steps that span a rise of 60 feet from the Yukon River to Schwatka Lake. Each step has a vertical baffle the fish can jump over or they can swim through a submerged opening. Unfortunately, the chinook salmon had not yet begun arriving yet. Their numbers at the fish ladder will be at peak levels when we return to Whitehorse in mid-August.
View of dam
In the afternoon, we drove to the Miles Canyon observation point and then took a two-hour guided hike to the Canyon City archeological site. The hike began with a walk across a long suspension bridge. Our guide, from the Yukon Conservation Society, told us a great deal about the history of the area and about the plants along the trail. The Miles Canyon and White Horse Rapids were once the most dangerous obstacles to navigation along the 2,000 miles length of the Yukon River. During the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, crudely built boats and inexperienced navigators caused many accidents and deaths in the canyon’s rapids. Canyon City was a small gold rush settlement that was established in 1897. This was a portage way around the rapids that Stampeders used on their way to Dawson City. Norman Macaulay, a 28-year-old, came up with the idea to build a tramway along the bank of the river. He also bought out a competitor who built a tramway on the opposite bank. In 1899, Macaulay sold both tramways to the railroad for a fortune. The foundations of some of the Canyon City buildings were still visible and well as many of the food cans that the Stampeders left behind. Apparently, few of the Stampeders were hunters so, instead, they had to rely on canned food that they brought with them. Today, due to the construction of a dam, the water in Miles Canyon is 10 meters deeper than it was during the Gold Rush so there is less evidence of the rapids that had made navigation so dangerous.
Tour group with hikers
Replica of tramcar
Boat in the canyon
Suspension bridge over Echo Canyon
On Saturday, June 30th, we drove 167 miles to Destruction Bay, YT where we spent the night at Destruction Bay Lodge. We stopped to see the Canyon Creek Bridge which was originally built in 1920 to cross the Aishihik River. It was rebuilt in 1942 for the Alaska Highway. Fortunately a newer bridge had since been built for us to drive across.
Phil on Canyon Creek Bridge
Side view of Canyon Creek Bridge
The drive around Kluane Lake was quite beautiful and we stopped often for picture taking.
The town of Destruction Bay has a population of 38 residents. Its name originated in 1942 when the encampment of the US soldiers working on the Alaska Highway was blown into Kluane Lake by 100 mph winds.
The campground wasn’t much more than a large parking lot but, by comparison to what we had in Whitehorse, the sites were quite large. There was one other caravan staying at the campground for the night, a large group from Germany who had rented RVs in Canada. The owner of the lodge and RV park was also the chef. He prepared a large meal that included 27-day aged Angus, marinated Baron of Beef. The owner was quite a character, as was the after-dinner entertainer. Both provided us with stories about life in the Yukon.
Our delicious dinner
The owner and chef
On Sunday, we had a short drive of only 115 miles to Beaver Creek, YT where we spent the night at Beaver Creek RV Park. Our drive was largely uneventful except for spotting a black bear along the highway.
When we arrived at the RV park, we learned that the owners were hosting a pig roast and entertainment to celebrate Canada Day. They even had a Mountie from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in attendance. The food was very good. The evening entertainment consisted of a 5-member family band, The Lack Family, and they were outstanding. In addition to the husband and wife, they had their three daughters (the youngest was 16). They have been performing fulltime for 10 years and have traveled internationally.
Directional signs in rec hall
Our group at dinner
The Lack Family
On Monday we said goodbye to Canada for a while as we headed into Alaska.
We left Okotoks, AB shortly after noon on Wednesday, the 13th, and drove 106 miles to Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court campground in Banff, AB where we had reservations for four nights. The drive took us through Calgary before turning west to Banff. We arrived around 2:30 pm and had to wait in a long line of RVs waiting to check into the campground. Our site (#217) was a good-sized semi-circular pull-through site. Phil had booked the reservation months earlier, the minute they starting accepting reservations, and couldn’t remember whether or not we had 50 amp service. Unfortunately, we discovered that the campground only has 30 amp service which required us to manage which devices we could run at the same time.
The weather forecast was rather disappointing, with cool and rainy weather predicted for the entire stay. Phil grilled hamburgers for dinner and had to clean and put away the grill immediately afterward due to concerns about bears and coyotes scavenging in the campground.
On Thursday we ventured out to explore downtown Banff. The weather was in the 40s and was raining steadily but we were determined not to let that spoil our visit. We were not the only ones with that idea and had to drive around a while until we were able to find a parking spot along the Bow River. We visited the Banff Visitor Center and then strolled through many of the shops on Banff Avenue.
Phil with a moose
We returned to our campsite and Phil had to disconnect our water hookups in anticipation of overnight temperatures near freezing. We celebrated Phil’s birthday with his traditional blueberry pie.
After dinner we went for a short hike near our campground. Although we got sprinkled on lightly a few times, the rain held off until we were back home. The clouds that had blocked our view of the mountains all afternoon were mostly gone during our hike. We encountered an elk very close to our trail and then a large herd of elk near our campground.
View of the valley
Elk along the trail
Jan setting up camera
Herd of elk near our campground
View from near our campground
View up the road from our campsite
The weather forecast for Friday called for rain most of the day. Despite this, we decided to drive to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, about 35 miles north of Banff. On a normal day, parking at these spots is very limited and most visitors must park at an overflow parking area and take a shuttle. In fact, when we first arrived at the turnoff for Moraine Lake, the parking lot was filled and vehicles were being turned away. However, we drove on to find a turnaround spot and, as we returned, we were allowed to enter the road to the lake. Although the parking lot was quite full, we were pleased to find a spot that was both wide enough and long enough to handle our truck.
We walked along the lake and, despite getting some light sprinkles on us, managed to stay fairly dry. The scenery was beautiful. We were tempted to rent a canoe but the possibility of being on the lake in a rainstorm caused us to pass on that idea.
Phil by Moraine Lake
Phil overlooking lake
Jan overlooking lake
We next went to the Lake Louise Visitors Center and had some lunch at one of the cafes. Then we headed to Lake Louise where, once again, parking was limited but we managed to find a spot. We strolled past the famous Chateau Lake Louise and along the bank of the lake. Like Moraine Lake, the reflections from the mountains on the lake were truly magnificent. We encountered a large group of people gathered along the trail and learned that there was a mama grizzly and two cubs a short distance away. Jan took advantage of the opportunity to use her telephoto camera lens to get some great pictures before the grizzlies scampered away.
Phil by bank of Lake Louise
Mama and cubs
Mama and cubs
View of Chateau Lake Louise
Heading back into the woods
We managed to make it back to our truck before the rain started and the rain continued for much of our drive back to Banff. We were really blessed with much nicer weather than forecast for our sightseeing. We were very glad that we had ignored the forecast and had visited the lakes.
On Saturday we went exploring a couple of the nearby lakes. First we stopped at Lake Two Jack and then continued on to Lake Minnewanka.
Jand and Phil at Lake Two Jacks
We then intended to drive up Tunnel Mountain Road to Surprise Corner where we could get an overview of the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. We didn’t have an address; we just knew that there was a small parking area across the road from the overlook. When we came to a parking area and saw some people crossing the road, we assumed we were at Surprise Corner. It turned out we were actually at the bottom of Tunnel Mountain Trail, a moderately steep one-mile climb to the summit of Tunnel Mountain. There were very many switchbacks along the trail and the altitude gave us quite a challenge. Regardless, we made it to the summit and enjoyed the view. The hike back down was a lot easier. After getting back in the truck, we continued down the road until we came to the real Surprise Corner. After viewing the hotel from the overlook, we started down the trail to the Bow River Falls but, after our hike up the Tunnel Mountain Trail, we didn’t have the energy to walk all the way down to the falls and back.
Jan at Surprise Corner overlook
View from summit of Tunnel Mountain
View of valley from Tunnel Mountain Trail
View of Fairmont Banff Springs from Tnnel Mountain
Phil relaxing at Tunnel Mountain summit
On Sunday we packed up and headed 180 miles north to Whistlers Campground in Jasper, Alberta where we stayed for three nights. We stopped at a pull-off to view Castle Mountain.
Parked at Castle Mountain
View from Icefield Parkway
After passing Lake Louise, we turned north on the Icefields Parkway, reputed to be one of the most beautiful highways in the country. We pulled over a number of times to enjoy the scenery. However, we were challenged with having to make split-second decisions before we passed the turnoffs as to whether the pull-offs were large enough to handle our truck and fifth wheel. When we reached the Columbia Icefield Chalet, the major attraction on the Parkway, the bus parking lot was full and the car parking lot didn’t appear to have spaces large enough for us to park. We turned down a road labeled Toe of the Glacier and immediately knew we might have trouble getting back out. Fortunately we found a pull-off along the road that was wide enough and flat enough for us to park. We walked a few hundred yards down the road to the trailhead for a 1-kilometer climb up to the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. Due to the melting of the glacier, it was unsafe to actually walk on it but we got close enough to feel the cold. When we returned to the parking lot, we analyzed various paths that we could use to get turned around. Although it was a tight fit, we did manage to get our rig turned around and returned to the Icefield Parkway. After that experience, we didn’t attempt to pull off at any more attractions, except to get pictures of some mountain goats grazing on the hillsides. Since many of these attractions are within 20 miles of Jasper, we decided to return in a couple of days when we don’t have the fifth wheel behind us.
Phil at toe of glacier
Moutain goats grazing
We arrived at Whistlers Campground in the Jasper National Park at about 3:30. The temperature was around 70 degrees and we had bright sun, a huge difference from the weather we left behind in Banff. We got out our rug and folding chairs and enjoyed sitting outside for the rest of the afternoon.
On Monday afternoon we took care of domestic duties, including laundry grocery shopping and refueling the truck. The laundromat was quite interesting. It was in the basement of a convenience store and was combined with a stationery store. Jasper is a small town and parking is limited. We ended up parking 1 ½ city blocks away and lugging our laundry to and from the laundromat. It was a sunny and warm day, with temperatures in the low 80s.
Monday evening we went for a stroll along the Miette River. The Miette is a small river that runs into the Athabasca River. It is reputed to be one of the five best flying fishing rivers in Canada. The river is fed by melting glaciers and snowcap and the current was extremely fast.
On Tuesday morning we headed out early to see some of the Icefields Parkway attractions we had passed on Sunday. We hiked a 3-mile trail through the Valley of Five Lakes. Each of the five lakes were beautiful and very clear. At one stop we watched a duck dive about three feet under water and we could see it as clearly as if it had been at the surface.