Thursday, 4 June 2015

0252 Best of the Best Part 1 - Alaska, Canada, and the Lower 48

Best of the Best Part 1.  Alaska, Canada, and the Lower 48.

BEFORE I START :-

Where do you begin when you’re trying to condense one of the most incredible years of your life into a few short paragraphs, when you try to condense some 5000 photos of that year  into just 300 of the best ones  ? – And those are the numbers just for part one of this Best of the Best !!  And to make it more difficult, virtually every single one of those 365 days contained a highlight, and on every single one of those days you were actively doing something amazing ?  Consequently, in a summary like this, a lot has to get glossed over, or worse still, left out completely – And that just detracts from the whole memory and experience.  But this summary, and indeed this whole blog over the past year, has not been intended solely for our family and friends, enabling them to keep up with our travels, and to vicariously share and enjoy them with us, but more importantly (and selfishly !) it has been for my own benefit.  If I did not write down the many adventures, and sort out the photos on a daily basis, then I would have quickly forgotten the details due to my increasing senility. This blog, and this “Best of the Best” summary, will also enable us to relive every moment of the journey whenever we want, remembering the great times, the wonderful people we met along the way, and that means that the journey need never end................

ALASKA, CANADA and the USA.

1st May 2014 – 28th July 2014.  89 days, 3 (sic) countries, and 22,937 kilometres.

Troopie was loaded out of Brisbane docks on the 13th March, and arrived in Seattle just 5 weeks later on board the Wilhelmsen Titania.  I then spent the next 3 weeks at my sister Janet’s and Ted’s house in Anacortes, preparing everything for the trip, and meeting up with some old Lotus friends in Seattle from my 2012 trip. Janet then arrived from Australia and after 3 or 4 days to get over her jet lag, we rolled down the hill into the car park for the Washington State ferry to Vancouver Island on the 7th May.  First tourist activity of the trip was to visit the sensational Butchart Gardens in Victoria before heading to our first campsite – Ironically the most expensive of the entire trip at $48 a night ! Then it was off to Chermainus to meet some Lotus friends, before wandering up through Vancouver
Island to Port Hardy where, on the 11th May, we caught an overnight BC Ferry up to Prince Rupert, via Bella Bella and Klemtu.  A couple of nights in Prince Rupert, and then another ferry (Alaska Marine Highways this time) up to Alaska’s island capital, Juneau, visiting Ketchikan and Petersburg on the way north through the incredible Inside Passage (not the one the bigger cruise ships are forced to use).  Juneau has lots to offer, not least the Mendenhall Glacier where we camped in the National Park and enjoyed beavers playing around at our feet for several hours.  We left the car in Juneau and went out to Sitka, the old Russian capital, and enjoyed two days exploring out there. From there it was back on the ferry to Haines, where we finally started driving north on the 20th May.

Up over the stunning Haines Pass (with lots of Ptarmigan) through to Haines Junction, and then up through Beaver Creek (where it snowed when we camped) and on into Alaska to Tok, with the great snowcapped peaks of the Wrangell St Elias NP on our left.  Since the weather was so good, we headed into Nabesna in the NP to camp for the night, and then the following day went in to McCarthy. What an incredible NP – 4 times bigger than Yellowstone and only two dirt access roads ! Saw some good wild life there too – Bears with cubs, and moose.  From there it was on to Valdez on one of the many great driving roads in Alaska, crossing mountains and passing glaciers beside the road.

A couple of days later it was back on the ferry for the journey to Whittier, during which we saw whales and also bumped into motorcyclist Cynthia for the second (and not the last) time. After meeting up with a young local lad who I had befriended in 2012, we drove through the unique rail / road tunnel and up beside scenic Turnagain Arm into Anchorage. 

Due to fires in the Kenai to the south, we decided to head north despite heavy rain and low cloud. As we neared Denali NP we were rewarded with blue skies, and ended up camping well up inside the NP at Savage River.  Naturally we visited my favourite bar / restaurant in Denali village, the Salmon Bake, and spent time with our trip buddies, Arie and Raya (who we had first met as we left Vancouver Island) before setting off north to Fairbanks and then on up the Dalton Highway, alongside the Alaska Pipeline to the Arctic Circle and Prudhoe Bay. 

This is an amazing road, and I had managed to get half way up it in the Lotus 2 years ago, but this time the poor weather made sure it was going to prove much more difficult despite having 4 WD and greatly increased ground clearance ! (I have now learned a new respect for this road – It has a mean reputation !)  After stopping for a very wet and cold night camp at the Arctic Circle, we got up to Coldfoot OK the next
morning, and were refuelling there, when I saw a couple of Haul Road trucks pull in, which made me wonder if it could possibly be my buddies from 2 years ago, Shawn and Erin, who haul the chemicals for my ex-employer ? Unbelievably it was – What are the odds of meeting the same two people, north of the Arctic Circle, 2 years apart ! And Janet was happy as she finally got to meet an Ice Road Trucker !!  And seeing a south bound motorcycle and its rider totally covered in thick mud except for where he had been sitting on the seat should have alerted me to the conditions ahead.

The Dalton Highway north of Coldfoot was new for me, and climbing up over the infamous Atigun Pass was for me a dream come true – The fact that it was cold, foggy, and with lots of snow only made it better, and going down the other side past avalanches that frequently flow across the road, blocking it until it can be cleared,
only served to validate the reputation of this road in winter.  At the foot of the pass the road suddenly turned to 6 inch deep slippery mud, churned up by all the big trucks. From here on the road was a mess, and the car was soon so covered in mud that I could not see out of any window except the front windscreen, and we had to stop and try to wash off the windows with freezing water from a roadside pond so I could just see what was coming up behind me. We camped that night at the foot of a hill called The Ice Cut, and later that night I heard Shawn give us a blast on his airhorns as he came back from Prudhoe Bay – He had already been up and dropped his load of chemicals and was heading back to Fairbanks for more ! That gives you an idea of how fast these trucks are moving !

While it was still cold (around freeing) and the roads still muddy, we rolled into Prudhoe Bay at about lunch time, ready for our guided tour out through the oilfield to the Arctic Ocean – No private vehicles allowed !  The Ocean was still solid ice at this
time of year, so instead of paddling, we walked out onto the ice for our photos.  I visited the office of my ex-employer, we had lunch and a shower for $15 in the Arctic Oilfield Hotel (a bunch of portable huts all linked together), and after exploring the few roads around town and visiting the General Store for souvenirs, we turned round and headed back south across the treeless but stunning Arctic Tundra, with caribou running across the road, and little ground squirrels sitting up on their hind legs like meerkats to watch us as we drove by.  

We headed out of town at about 6 pm, and the road was already drying out and becoming much more pleasant to travel on.  The sun was shining, and in the distance we would see it lighting up the snow capped peaks of the Atigun Pass, and it was so beautiful that we decided to keep going and try to get through the Pass in the glow of the night time sunshine – And it was well worth it, with the pink of the 10 pm sun lighting up the snow as we came through the pass.  What a magical moment.

Soon after the pass we stopped in a big gravel turn out, had some supper and turned in for the night.

Next morning, after stopping in the remote village Wiseman for coffee and a look around, we finally pulled into the Coldfoot Camp at about noon – Just in time for some lunch and a refuel.  And no sooner had we sat down than Shawn and Erin pulled
in with their trucks again, this time heading back north again with new loads.  They couldn’t believe it any more than we could – 3 times in Coldfoot, and 3 times I meet the same guys !! We sat around and enjoyed our lunch together !  From there it was back down past the Circle, visiting the Hot Spot for a coffee and to read some of their amusing signs, and in Joy we stopped to see Joe Carlson and his wife Nancy at the Wildwood General Store – And they remembered me from 2 years ago !  Passed a very pleasant hour with this amazing couple before heading back into Fairbanks.

The next day we washed the car, then headed out to North Pole to see Santa before heading south down the Alcan, past Rika’s Roadhouse where we met cycling family Karl, Marie, and little 3 year old Kayla (of whom more later)  for the first time, and shortly afterwards we turned west on the 130 mile dirt Denali Highway that I had never previously driven.  This stunning road wound through the Tundra, past a still
partially frozen Summit Lake, and under a beautiful blue sky we found a great camp area at Tangle Lakes where we stopped for the night.   The next day, driving through permafrost country always with snow capped peaks surrounding us, we climbed up to  MacLaren Pass at 4086 ft, where we stopped for coffee and lunch at the Lodge.  We then continued westward on this amazing and infrequently travelled road that has to be one of the most picturesque in all Alaska, eventually coming out onto the main road at Cantwell.    After another quick overnight stop in Denali, we headed south, stopping in Talkeetna to find my pilot friend from 2012, Trent Griffin, before heading on back to Anchorage.  We camped at Eagle River State Park about 10 kms N of Anchorage – and arrived at 6 pm to find a black bear alert in force not 30 minutes previously !

After a late start, and a Buffalo Burger at Wee Bee’s, (soooo good), we headed south towards the Kenai Peninsula, stopping on the way at the excellent Alaska Animal Conservation Centre, where Janet got chased by a buffalo and we watched grizzlies
cooling off in a lake. That evening we arrived in another of my favourite camping spots – Out at the very end of the Homer Spit that juts out some 4 kms into Kachemak Bay.  We found Woody and Wendy’s camp site and spent a while catching up with them – I had met them 2 years ago, and knew they would be there this year.  What I couldn’t believe was that we were also recognised by two other couples who recognised us from two years ago, Chuck and Jeff Cloutier and their wives Linda and Karen, and we spent a wonderful evening catching up with them and their amazing stories about Alaska.  It really is a small world sometimes ! A visit out to Halibut Cove on the Danny J, and a superb Halibut supper rounded off yet another great stay in Homer.   We had also camped next door to Iditarod finisher 130, Richard, and his wife Janet, and we had a great breakfast with them at La Baleine Café before heading back up the Spit towards Anchorage again.  We stopped in at the little Russian influenced village of Ninilchik and its little Russian Orthodox chapel,  and after a wet night at Portage Valley we headed off in heavy rain the next morning to Whittier (again !) for a Glacier Cruise.

26 Glaciers, sea otters, sea eagles, glaciers calving, drinks made from ice bergs fresh from the glaciers, humpback whales “bubble fishing” beside us,  seals and kittywakes  - Yes it was a fantastic day, despite the fact that it hardly stopped raining !!  A quick visit with my buddy Tiki at his mum’s restaurant, and it was back through the tunnel to Anchorage to meet up with Fred and Magda, The Two Dutchies, at a camp site, who also travel in a Troopie.

After an oil change the next morning, and a final burger at Wee Bee’s, we headed towards the Matanuska Glacier on the way to Tok, stopping en route at a Musk Ox farm that was so interesting since these animals are just incredible.   After camping in a deserted State Park, the next morning we found our way through the rough and muddy roads to the Matanuska Glacier, and spent nearly 2 hours hiking over just a small portion of this accessible 27 mile long and 4 mile wide sight which, rare for a glacier in Alaska, doesn’t end in an ocean.  Then it was back on the road east to Tok, passing Dall sheep up in the mountains, and moose crossing the road.

From Tok it was out of Alaska and into Canada’s  Yukon and onto the Top of the World Highway, Chicken (oh dear !), and on into Dawson City – a Gold Rush capital round here and one of our favourite towns, with old time music halls, dirt roads, wooden sidewalks, shows at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall, and off course Captain Dick’s world famous Sourtoe cocktail, which both Janet and I are now members of !  The next day, having visited  Robert Service’s and Jack London’s cabins, we headed off on our next adventure – 600 miles of dirt road to Inuvik up on the Beaufort Sea, north of the Arctic Circle in the  Northwest Territories. 

The scenery along this road is unique as it is not glaciated – The impact of the McKenzie River system means that no glaciers ever existed here, so all the mountains are formed from erosion.  The result is some of the most spectacular scenery you can imagine – The whole drive is just stunning.  But it is a dirt road, and as it was raining
as we headed north, pretty messy.  We nearly crashed into a Claudia and John in their German Troopie, and had to make emergency repairs to our pop top in Eagle Plains when a bolt sheared off due to the vibrations on dirt roads.  Just north of Eagle Plains we crossed the Arctic Circle (again !) and then headed north into the Northwest Territories, passing the weird ice bubbles of Arctic pingos beside the road.  A couple of Grizzly cubs kept us entertained as they circled our car for a while before disappearing nonchalantly up the road behind us, and then it was on up, over the two (free) ferries across the Peel and Red rivers before we arrived in Inuvik.  The last couple of hundred k’s is perhaps the most boring because the trees along the McKenzie river delta mean you can see little of the countryside.  But this is America’s 2nd largest delta system after the Mississippi.

Inuvik itself is not a hive of activity – The biggest reason to go there is to hitch a (plane) ride out into the wilderness to hike.  The igloo shaped church is unique, but unfortunately was closed the day we were there, so after a very cold night in the camp site we visited to the local council offices and an excellent coffee house, and then headed out of town past the brightly coloured local houses, with all their water
and sewerage services above ground !  It is very hard to explain the scenery because it is unlike anything else you will see, but it really is breathtaking.  Eventually, 3 days later, we returned to the main road and spent one more night in nearby Dawson City before heading south.  We  enjoyed a pleasant evening camping with cyclists Karl, Marie and Kayla, and in the morning headed down the road towards Whitehorse, following the Yukon River that formed the basis for travel in the 1898 Gold Rush.  My favourite statue is there, with a plaque saying “This stature is dedicated to all those who follow their dreams”.  From Whitehorse we then detoured down to Skagway, because, having followed the trail of the Gold Rush so far all over Alaska, Janet wanted to see the last link in the trail – Skagway and up over the infamous Chilkoot Trail. Last time I had travelled this road it had fittingly been in a
blizzard, so to see the amazing and stark scenery down across the pass, through Fraser and the rail terminus, and then on down into Skagway was a real treat.  We enjoyed a couple of days in Skagway, including a magnificent dinner overlooking the cruise ships down near the harbour, and an explore the area including the start of the Chilkoot Trail, before heading off down the Alcan Highway.  Lots of wildlife through here, and we met up with Argentinian duo Jun Manuel and Santiago who had driven the whole way in a little Fiat 600, finally arriving in Dawson Creek, the official start of the Alcan Highway.

From there it was down into Jasper, and the stunning drive from there down to Banff, past the magnificent Athabasca Falls, surely has to be (another) one of the great drives of the world, through the Columbia Icefields and the Sunwapta Pass ?  We found a lovely camp site by a rushing river just outside Banff, where we met Ad and Bernadette in their Dutch Troopie.  Next morning it was in to Lake Louise for a walk round the lake and then on down to Banff for a while before continuing on to Calgary where we overnighted in an airport hotel so Janet could catch her flight back to Aus in the morning,  while I continued alone across Canada.

Calgary through to Edmonton was all freeway, but I found out that my targeted destination of Churchill, over on Hudson Bay, was isolated because there had been a
major derailment on the single rail line from Thompson. Still, there were flights, and I found accommodation, so decided to travel across Canada on the most Northern roads  could find instead of across the somewhat boring prairies. This took me through places like La Ronge (with the only remaining Trading Post with bearskins in between the milk and the cheese in the supermarket !), Flin Flon (a big mining town), and then on to Thompson, where I got the last seat on a small plane for the next morning, and headed out to the Polar Bear and Beluga whale capital, Churchill Manitoba ! 

I was out of season for Polar Bears, although we saw a couple in the distance – And anyway the ever-present armed guards actually try to scare them away as soon as they see them – Slightly different than in Alaska ! But it was Beluga Whale season, and the amazing sight of having hundreds surrounding us in our little rubber boat was incredible.  Massive horseflies (locally known as Bulldogs) are a major problem here in the summer, but I survived them, and also survived attacks by fiercely territorial Arctic Terns, and had a fascinating few days in this remote township. 


From Thompson I decided to head straight down through the centre of the US – Many people have told me there is nothing there, and I decided to see if they are right.  I have driven East and West coasts – Something different his time ! And apart from a brief detour out to Mt Rushmore (where I was a little underwhelmed), I just drove right down through North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and on into Texas.  And people are right – There really is very little out there in the middle !  Lots of oil, lots of farming, lots of cowboys, but not a lot to stop for.  And it was getting hotter and hotter, so  I just kept going into Texas and to my good friends Geary and Kathy Johnston’s place for a rest.  New tyres for Troopie, an oil change, a hair cut for me, some great Texas food and a few red wines.  Very pleasant, and caught up with lots of old work mates at Debbie and Ron’s place, and also managed a night in Houston at Aussie mate Neale Browne’s place, before heading north up to Dan York’s place in Arkansas for a visit.  I knew Dan really well in
Dubai in the mid 1970’s and haven’t seen him since, so it was great to catch up with him on his Pecan Farm, and meet his sons Will and Starnes.  Even went out in Dan’s tinny to help him get some catfish on the Red River.  After a great 2 days in Arkansas it was off to Fort Worth to meet another workmate from 40 years ago – We trained together back in 1974 !  It was really getting hot by now, so it was nice to enjoy their airconditioning and great hospitality for
a couple of days before heading off across New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns, and Arizona, to cross into Mexico at Mexicali, chosen so I could drive down through Baja California, a trek I have wanted to make for 40 years !  It was so hot – 117 deg C – I ended up in a cheap motel for my last night in the US !

So here I was on the Mexican border, 22,937 kms and 3 months after leaving Anacortes, and ready for Part 2 of my great adventure – Central America.  I knew nothing about where I was going – All I knew was that I had to head south - But I couldn’t wait to get started !!

Rest of the photos are here :-  https://picasaweb.google.com/117739775480775657932/0254BestOfTheBest1?authkey=Gv1sRgCKC8lpLIkab-bw

 

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