Denali, Day 3

Today was a quiet day. We got in a couple of hikes close to the Riley Campground, where we are located. Nothing too strenuous or exciting and certainly no photos like yesterday’s adventure deep into the park.

Our first hike was around Horseshoe Lake, a small lake and beaver pond near our site.

A view from the top of the trail.

The water is clear and cold and the trail winds around the lake and then up a fairly steep climb to the top for a total of about 3.8 miles.

Beavers are a significant contributor to the lake. Without their dam there would be no lake.

We got a good glimpse of what the town outside Denali has done to build itself into the hillside. It is sort of an interesting way to accommodate the realities of a narrow valley bounded on one side by a mountain and on the other by a national park.

It’s a little hard to see but the town is built up almost in the shape of a triangle.

Our second hike was through the forest on the McKinley Trail. Again, not much photogenic about the hike, which was only about a mile and a half, but the park residents kept a wary eye on us to make sure we didn’t break any rules.

Quoth the raven, nevermore.

Our best news is that we were able to score an extra day here by watching the computer reservation system pretty regularly looking for cancellations. After three days of watching we got luck. The entire campground in booked full every day and the only way to get in now that tourist season has started in earnest is to watch for cancellations. It is sad to go by the reservations desk and see people lined up trying to get a site only to be turned away because there is no room. Over 400,000 people come here every year to visit so the few sites that exist are reserved, often a year ahead.

The forecast is for rain tomorrow but we shall see. The rain tends to be spotty and occasional. Perhaps we’ll have a chance to do a more challenging hike tomorrow, or get in some mountain biking. There is a really fun (but challenging) mountain bike trail that climbs up to the park headquarters several miles into the park. We tried a bit of it a couple of days ago and found it very challenging with some very steep uphills and some muddy spots. For us, that is a challenge since we are novices.



Denali, day two

How does one describe a perfect Father’s Day? How about an 8 hour day on a bus taking a 134 mile round trip into the recesses of the Denali National Park and Preserve. This wilderness must be seen to be appreciated. No words or photos can capture the majesty of this very special place. We were fortunate; we saw 9 bears, many caribou, 7 moose, dall sheep, magpies, ptarmigans, a wolf and extraordinary scenery, including the top of Denali or Mount McKinley if you prefer. Only 30% of visitors to Denali get to see the top of the mountain so it was a special treat that we got a clear day and wonderful view of the mountain.

The bus driver and the rangers clearly have a special relationship with this place. They asked us to consider and reflect upon what the wilderness means to us. Is it necessary? Does it enrich us in some ethereal way that is hard to explain? Does it matter if it is here for our children’s children? The answer, at least for me, is we need the wild places. They are a place where we can reconnect with the simpler and more fundamental aspects of our lives; where we are just one more animal in the food chain; where we are not supreme but simply another. These are the places where we can be reminded that we were given creation to care for it, not to use it up.

On our way to the bus we almost walked on momma moose and her two babies
First in line for the 0700 departure – at 0615.
Early in the journey out to Eielson we met the Alaska State Bird, the ptarmigan, a good sign according to our bus driver.
Next on the bucket list we saw dall sheep far up on the mountainside.
Always the mountains beckon us to come farther into the park.
…come closer still…
…this is where the wild things are…
…where caribou roam…
…where grizzly bears know no fear of man…
…where a mother can take her cubs out for a stroll…
…and caribou graze just a short distance away…

…yet still the mountain calls, come closer….

…see my many colors and formations…I can be soft and warm…
…or hard and cold.
Wolves are making a return to the park.
And we are some of the fortunate 30% who get to see the top of Denali – 75 miles away, the mountain towers over those mountains much closer to us.
As we return home to camp we are reminded that this is still first and foremost home to many four legged friends.

This is just a brief glimpse into the splendor that is Denali. And yet for all its majesty is is also so fragile, so easily spoiled. After seeing the beauty and natural wonders of this place, how do you answer the question, “Do we need to protect and keep these wild places for our children’s children?”


Denali National Park and Preserve

Sorry, no pictures today. After our arrival and setup yesterday, today was a recoup day. Laundry is now done, the camper is a bit neater and cleaner and we have tickets for the day long tour into Denali tomorrow. If our tour is successful we should have some animal photos as well as some more scenery from the park.

We did manage to get in a bicycle ride today. There are some great mountain bike trails well worth exploring. I felt my receding cold a bit as I was gasping for air on some of the uphill climbs but it felt good to get out and into the fresh air. We also need to practice a bit with the new semi-fat bikes we bought for this trip. I actually lofted the front wheel on one steep climb, surprising myself just a bit as the front wheel came up. I’ll need to learn to moderate just a bit to keep that front wheel down where it belongs. You can tell I’m a novice mountain biker!

The park is exceedingly quiet and clean and the campsites are very private and well spaced. We had hoped to camp farther into the park at Savage River but Riley has actually turned out to be a great place from which to launch our adventures. There is a store nearby as well as flush toilets and the laundry and showers.

With any luck we’ll have some pictures to share tomorrow.

Fairbanks to Denali

Time to catch up a bit. Between lack of connectivity and my cold the blog has taken a bit of a hit. But we are now in Denali for 5 nights in a wooded site in the Riley Campground. But let’s back up to the top of the world highway. We got out of our camp site in Dawson City at around 0730 to get to the ferry across the Yukon River. We weren’t first in line!

It takes a while to get across when the ferry can only take one bus at a time. We waited about an hour for our turn.
Finally it was our turn.

Once across the Yukon we began the climb to the Top of the World Highway. The road was in surprisingly good condition and views from up top were spectacular.

Photos simply can’t capture the views of the mountains but this is a sample. The views are spectacular.
Finally we can see Alaska and the border crossing.
And we are finally in Alaska (and back in the USA).
The customs and border control folks were very pleasant. They rotate shifts up here. Our agent lives in Anchorage but rotates assignments to this outpost along with other agents.

What we didn’t realize was that the worst of the highway was yet to come. We went from the well maintained Top of the World Highway to a narrow winding road with 1,000 foot drop offs on one side and hills on the other.

It is hard to capture but this is looking down over the edge of the narrow dirt road. You don’t want to look if you have vertigo.

The road was also under construction and we had to wait outside of Chicken for them to dump gravel and roll it to make the road passable.

Chickens in Chicken, AK This was the attraction in Chicken.

From Chicken to Tok was a much better drive. The road had a few bumps but at least it was paved.

The closer we got to Tok the better the road got.
We had to stop at Fast Eddy’s for coffee. The place is a popular stop and it was busy when we arrived.
Everywhere you look there are great views of snow capped mountains.

We arrived at Denali around 0930 and picked out a site. After a birthday dinner for Helen at The Bake we drove up to the topof the campground and got a good look at Denali – a rare day with no clouds obscuring the peak. We are not settled in for 5 days and hope to do some biking, hiking and touring.

Denali, both peaks in full view.



Dawson City Yukon

Three hundred and forty three miles. A long day on some pretty rough roads but we arrived. Did the walking tour of Dawson last evening and both of us were dead on our feet at the end. We are cheek by jowl in a parking lot with campers so close on either side we couldn’t open an awning if we wanted to. But this campground is in downtown Dawson so we can walk to almost everything. Tomorrow we have several tours lined up. The Parcs Canada folks do a great job of explaining the history and preservation of Dawson so we should come away with a real understanding of how the community has developed and changed over the years.

That said, this is a town struggling to survive on tourism and mining. And tourism has slowed according to some of the locals, though you wouldn’t know it by the number of vehicles lined up to get in here earlier today. What has surprised me is the number of tourists here from Austria and Germany. Not sure what the draw is but the folks on either side of us are from Germany and half the people in Klondike Kates tonight were either Swiss, Austrian or German (my best guess since I don’t speak the language). Perhaps it is the lure of big open spaces for folks from Europe, where countries are smaller and more densely populated. Or perhaps it is the weak Canadian dollar compared to the Euro. Whatever the reason, we have seen many folks from Europe since we entered Canada.

Helen and I did the Claim 33 gold panning class today and then went to claim 6, the free gold panning claim to try our hand at finding gold. We then toured Robert Sample’s cabin and did tea at the Commissioner’s house, both tours put of by Parc Canada and both extremely well done.

What follows is a sample of Dawson City.

Very much a working grocery store with a good selection of everything.
The Downtown hotel, and the famous Sourdough Saloon, where you can drink a sour toe cocktail.
This is what happens when you build on permafrost and it melts under you – your buildings begin to list in all directions.
You can legally gamble here in Dawson.
Lots of the buildings are quite colorful.

Robert Sample’s cabin. No one has lived in it since he left Dawson. The tour put on by Parc Canada was marvelous.
You can learn how to pan for gold at Claim 33.
Ginny showing Helen the proper panning technique. She was a wonderful instructor and we highly recommend them if you come up this way.
There’s gold in them thar hills…
…but we didn’t find any at Claim 6. But it was a fun morning trying our hand at panning for gold.
Dredge #6 is a huge machine and how they mined for gold until the 60’s. Now it is another Parcs Canada historic site.

Tomorrow we go over the Top of the World highway to Chicken Alaska.


Caribou Campground, Whitehorse, Yukon

Today was an “easy”day, only 6 hours to get from Watson Lake to Whitehorse. We stayed an extra day at Watson Lake provincial campground just because it was so peaceful and quiet. Helen took a couple of pictures that give you a feel for the quiet beauty of the place.The road to Whitehorse was in pretty good condition most of the way. There was one long stretch of gravel but the rest of the road was good pavement. There were a few nice views along the way.

Ten years ago when we started talking about doing this trip it would have been on motorcycles.
Catching the morning sun.
We crossed the Continental Divide…
…and the Yukon River.

Tomorrow will be a LONG day. Whitehorse to Dawson City is 350 miles and the Milepost says it will take a minimum of 6 hours which means for us closer to ten with stops for fuel, dog walks and food. We are planning on two days in Dawson City to do some of the touristy stuff like panning for gold and going to see the big dredge. From Dawson City we plan on taking the Top of the World highway to Chicken, Alaska and then on to Fairbanks where I hope to do an oil change on the truck since we are overdue for one.



Watson Lake, Yukon Territories

It’s been a few days without any kind of electronic access so we have a lot of catching up to do. Last post we were in Grande Prairie BC and I was complaining about how disappointed I was in the oil and gas field development in the area. We were up and out fairly early on June 7th (for us) and on the road by 0730. This was the sight going out to the oil fields as we were headed into town.

Miles of bumper to bumper cars and trucks headed to the oilfields.

I am sure the oil and gas business is good for the local economy but the roads and environment take a beating.

The trip from Grande Prairie to Dawson Creek was uneventful and we crossed from Alberta to BC with no fanfare and another change in time zones. We stopped at the Walmart in Dawson Creek for a few supplies and then decided we would make the run up the Alaska Highway to Fort Nelson. We knew it would be a long day and sure enough, 400 plus miles later we were at Fort Nelson and quickly decided to go a bit farther to Tetsa River Lodge and Campground, one of the stops on my bucket list because of their famous cinnamon buns (I know, crazy but true).

The famous “Mile 0” of the Alaska Highway. An obligatory shot.

Kim at the Alaska Highway Information Center gave a couple of tips on things not to miss on our trip north.

First on the list was this bridge, the only remaining curved wooden bridge from the original Alaska Highway.

We wouldn’t have seen this without Kim’s great advice on where to find it. The new Alaska Highway doesn’t make this easy to find.

We continued on toward Fort Nelson. Along the way there was plenty of evidence of the frequent forest fires along the highway.

We have seen lots of signs warning of wildlife but we haven’t seen much real wildlife until now.
The scenery doesn’t change much at first.
After we arrived at Fort Nelson we decided to move on a bit farther to Tetsa River Lodge and Campground where we spent the night. Nice quiet wooded sites with power and water.
Our home for the night…
and breakfast in the morning. The world famous Tetsa River cinnamon buns. And yes, they are that good.

After we left Tetsa River the topography finally began to change and we left miles and miles of trees behind. It started to feel “big” like we thought things should feel on a journey to Alaska.

more warning signs were followed by…
Stone sheep.
And a few more formidable roadside creatures as well.
Kim at the Alaska Highway Information Center said we had to stop here for a soak, so we did. Water temperature was 104 degrees. We soaked for a while and then mosied on.
Fuel stops and towns are farther apart and smaller and the mountains loom in the distance.
Odd things start to become “famous”. Like Toad River, famous for thousands of…
The highway is actually in pretty good condition but there are some spots that demand attention…
Just as in Vermont, there is a short construction season so there is road work and dust…
but also great natural beauty.

and finally we are out of BC and in the Yukon. We found the boundary marker – one foot in each province.

We are spending the night at Watson Lake, dry camping in a provincial park. Watson Lake is also home to another famous oddity of the highway north, the signpost forest.

We found lots of Vermont memorabilia among thousands of signs and license plates. Folks have been here before us.

This is probably our last post until we get to Fairbanks since there is no cell or wifi service along much of our route north. So don’t be concerned, we’ll be back as time and technology allow. Until then…

Grand Prairie, Alberta

Two hundred and fifty miles for the day. Normally I’d say that is a short day but it felt long. Little of interest on the roads today, many stretches of moderately rough pavement and the last 30 or so miles wall to wall trucks from the Alberta oil and gas fields.

We started the day from Jasper at about 0730, a good early start for us. The temperature was a cool 35 degrees to start the day but the sun was shining and it was a beautiful start to the day. There is a gondola to the top of the mountain behind the national park. It closed at 8PM or we would have been tempted. The following two pictures give you a sense of why it would have been a fun ride with great views

The little bump on top of the mountain is the gondola terminus.
If you look closely you can see a small silver bubble about halfway up the slope of the mountain. Taken with the telephoto lense, that is a gondola on the way up.
We stopped in Hinton to fill up with fuel before the run up Alberta 40 to Grand Prairie.
This was much of what we saw for the run from Hinton to Grande Cache. Trees, trees and more trees. Short, spindly cedars. Huge plantations of them that seemed to have been part of a reforestation program.
Yup, trees as far as the eye can see in all directions.
As we closed in on Grande Cache we started to see caribou warning signs – no caribou because they normally migrate in the winter, but lots of warnings.
What you need to know about caribou.
Just beyond Grande Cache we noticed the hillsides were scarred and there appeared to be some sort of mining operation. Sure enough, to our surprise, we passed by a coal mining operation.
As we approached Grand Prairie we started to see these gas-off flames along the road and truck traffic began to pick up and we saw lots of side roads with heavy machinery and pipelines.
Apparently there is no pipeline to transport the gas and oil so trucks transport most of the oil.
Wall-to-wall trucks in all directions. And lots of dust and dirt from the side roads, which are all gravel.

I think this last section of industrial mining operations was part of what tired me out. It was disappointing to come into such an industrial area after the beauty of the run up the Icefield Parkway.

We are also beginning to appreciate what a long trip this really is. We have traveled over 4,000 miles ¬†and still have 1,500 miles just to get to Fairbanks, AK. We are averaging 285 miles a day which doesn’t sound like a lot but it adds up when you do it day after day for weeks. We have taken a couple of days off from travel to do laundry and rest but it is a pretty demanding schedule because our goal is to get to Alaska and then spend some days exploring at a slower pace. Tomorrow we are looking at a 400 mile run to Fort Nelson, mostly because there is almost nothing between Dawson Creek (mile 0 on the Alaska Highway) and Fort Nelson. We are also finding that sleep comes a bit harder when it is daylight until 2230-2300. I can’t imagine what we’ll do when we are in constant daylight in Alaska.

Whistler Campground, Jasper National Park, Jasper, Canada

At six AM we were in the service department of Okotoks Ford to try to get in line for a service appointment. Julie Niles, the service advisor, made us feel right at home and as if we were her only customer and concern.

We were made to feel right at home, Ginger and all. Actually, Ginger was her usual self – attracted all the attention.

By 0900 Charli, the mechanic assigned to us, had found the problem (a loose hose), fixed it, replaced the coolant and we were on our way. No charge for labor and a discount on the coolant. A wonderful dealership staffed with caring and competent people. If you are in the area and need help they’ll be there for you.

We wanted to take the Ice Road Parkway so we skirted around Calgary on 22 and then took Route 1 to 93, according to most sources the most beautiful road in North America. I have to admit I was stunned by the beauty of this road and the really good condition it was in. As usual, words fail so just enjoy the scenery.

I wonder why no one was swimming.
The water is an amazing blue green color.
The mountain vistas are stunning and around every corner.
How about looking at that out your cabin door?
I could pump gas here all day long! How many gas stations have you been to with this view?

“The road was a ribbon of highway…”
The Icefield Glacier – and hordes of tourists.

They have built natural bridges so the bears, elk and other animals can cross over the road safely. Such a great idea!
Our home for the night, Whistler Campground. Beautiful secluded sites.
Our neighbors for the evening…
Apparently they prefer these but will snack on us if hungry enough.

That’s all for tonight. It has been a spectacular day. Tomorrow’s target is Grande Prairie.

Oops, a minor glitch in Okotoks

So we started out for Banff this morning and got no more than a few miles out of town when the temperature gauge on the truck suddenly jumped and a warning light came on saying we were overheating. We shut down and checked the radiator, which appears full and not hot at all but noted that it appears radiator fluid is leaking from somewhere in the engine bay. With the size of the Ford diesel motor it is almost impossible to see anything in the engine bay so we limped back to Okotoks are are now camped out in the Ford parking lot. They open at 0600 tomorrow morning and we hope to know more by the end of the day. This trip was to be an adventure and so it is. More to come tomorrow. Let’s hope for a simple fix.

Our camping spot for the night.