On the road again – traipsing across the Yukon

We left Denali three days ago and are now in a campground just outside Whitehorse. This is the first time we have had a cell signal for three days so perhaps that will help explain the lack of blog posts for the last three days. You can’t appreciate how big and how rural Alaska and the Yukon are until you travel up here. One hundred miles between small gas stations is normal. Grocery stores like what we are accustomed to only exist in the larger towns. That is not to say you can’t get around up here but you need to think ahead because there isn’t someone around every corner to help you out of a mess if you get into one.

After leaving Denali we traveled south on Alaska 3 to Cantwell where we picked up the Denali Highway, Alaska 8. This dirt road would have had spectacular views if the weather had been better but it was cloudy and rained off and on the entire day. The Denali Highway really is a trip through history. “While the highway opened in 1957 as the first road to allow access to Denali National Park, the history of the road as a route of adventure through the wilderness is a fabled tale in the history of Alaska.

From the earliest Americans through to the Copper River Basin-dwelling Athapaskan tribes, the present-day Tangle Lakes area was an important seasonal hunting ground. This area contains some of the earliest evidence of human occupation in North America. In the 225,000 acres of the Tangles Lakes Archaeological District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, over 400 archaeological sites have been documented. The modern-day history of the area began approximately 100 years ago, when gold miners in the Valdez Creek region, near the Susitna River, pioneered a trail to the east between the mining district and Paxson, and a little later westward from the mines toward present-day Cantwell. The current highway roughly follows these miners’ tracks for much of its distance.

Traveling the Denali Highway today is truly a path through awesome wilderness that links travelers to Alaska’s prehistoric past and gold rush history.” (http://www.denalihwy.com/area/denali-highway)

Even though the weather was lousy, we did manage to see a moose.
There are a few hunting camps and lodges on the Denali but very few places to stop. This was one.
The entire road is fairly narrow and gravel. It is also quite rough in spots. The bridge has a wood deck.
Occurring in glaciated and formerly glaciated regions, an esker is a long, winding ridge of stratified sand and gravel. The Denali passes over a number of eskers like this one.
It’s too bad the weather wasn’t more cooperative because the views could have been spectacular.

Once we traversed the Denali we traveled down route 4 beyond Paxon to Sourdough Campground where we spent the night. The state and provincial campgrounds are well maintained and a great deal at $12.00. It turns out that the river at Sourdough is one of the most popular and best producing fishing rivers in Alaska. Since we bought our non-resident licenses the day before we threw in a line and caught a number of little 6-8″ fish. We tossed them back and didn’t catch any of the trophy salmon or graylings that others have caught in this location but we had fun.

Next day we headed for the Yukon border at Beaver Creek and camped at Snag Junction, a YT provincial park.

Some of the scenery along the way was spectacular but unfortunately we had another cloudy and rainy day.

Tonight we are camped just outside Whitehorse in Wolf Creek Campground, another provincial campground. There are no hookups or showers at these campground but with 40 gallons of fresh water we are pretty self sufficient for a week or so before we need to replenish our water supply. The trip here was a fairly easy 250 mile day so for the three days we have put about 750 miles behind us.

An ever present sight up here this time of year. Construction season is short and they make the most of the days available, working 7 days a week.
This is typical of the roads here and why they are working so many construction projects. The weather here destroys the roads pretty quickly so it is a never ending task to keep repairing them.
We did manage to add to our collection of animals – king salmon spawning run. The fish are red and fighting upstream to their spawning grounds. Just gorgeous.
We also added swans…
…and a cow moose with baby to the photographic collection.
…and Helen managed to find the world’s largest gold pan.

That’s all for tonight. Tomorrow we shoot for Watson Lake for a night before we swing south on the Cassiar.

Summer solstice + 1

So last night I promised more about Denali and our flight around the mountain. I also want to tell you we picked the absolute perfect day for our air tour. Not only was it a clear day but there was literally no turbulence out and back: a clear, smooth day is rare up here. Even our pilot was surprised and remarked on how rare it is to have a day like yesterday.

Now a few facts about the mountain and the park just because you really need some background for the photos. Denali rises about 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) from its base, which is a greater vertical rise than Everest’s 12,000-foot rise (3,700 meters) from its base at 17,000 feet (5,200 meters). So although Everest is higher, Denali is taller. The upper half of Denali is permanently covered with snow and many glaciers, some more than 30 miles (48 km) long. The mountain’s extreme cold, which can be minus 75 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius) with wind chill down to minus 118 F (minus 83 C), can freeze a human in an instant. Denali is home to many glaciers. The glaciers range in thickness but the Ruth Glacier has a measured thickness of 3,800 feet. There have been thousands of attempts to summit Denali but only about half actually succeed.

The national park is 6,000,000 acres and contains just one, mostly gravel, road that is 92 miles long. Over 400,000 people visit Denali every year. The park is a designated wilderness and the challenge with that many visitors is to keep it that way. After spending a week here you begin to appreciate how big the park is but also how threatened it is by civilization and the increasing number of people wanting to visit.

Our hosts for the tour. Highly recommended if you are up this way. Not inexpensive but it is the trip of a lifetime.
We had enough folks to fill two planes – that is the other Piper Navajo that left with us. We are flying over the lowlands before we get to the spine of the Alaska Range.
This is typical of a valley carved out by a glacier – a wide smooth bottom with gently sloping walls. This differs from a valley carved by a river, which will tend to have much steeper walls and a narrow bottom.
As we climb higher we begin to see more snow topped mountains and some smaller glaciers.
A perfect view of a glacier as it transitions from a river of ice to lower altitudes where it begins to melt. The water from a glacier is very silty and will not support fish or other life because of the silt and high mineral content. The silt in the water is called glacial flour, and the silty water is described as glacial milk.
The unique colors of Kodachrome Pass are the result of the various mineral deposits in the soils. The colors are remarkable.
The Ruth, Kahiltna and Muldrow Glaciers are the longest glaciers in the park; each is more than 30 miles long. The Kahiltna Glacier, which is not only the longest glacier in the park but also in the entire Alaska Range, is 44 miles in length.
Denali dwarfs everything around it. Even from a distance, it’s size begins to assert itself.
The size is deceiving – we are still 40 miles away.
As we begin to close in on the mountain its size begins to assert itself.
Another of the glaciers flowing away from Denali.
Avalanches just waiting to happen. Look at the various cracks where the snow and ice have started to separate.
The mountain from about 2 miles away and from 12,000 feet. The mountain is 2 miles higher than we are flying.
This gives some perspective on size. Just above the leading edge of the wing is a series of small black dots. That is the base camp for people making an assault on the mountain. From the base camp to the col just above and to the right is a full day’s hike. From there people make their final attempts to reach the summit.
Yet another glacier. Note the very blue color of the ice.
The north face, also known as the Wickersham Wall. A slope of 50 degrees, it has only been climbed a few times. It is a sheer granite face covered with ice and subject to regular avalanches.
Evidence of recent avalanches. Most of these occurred in the last two weeks.

Finally, a few snippets of video as we flew around the mountain.

Nothing captures the grandeur like being here but this is my attempt to share this glorious place with you.

Denali – summer solstice

There are far too many pictures to sort through them all tonight but here’s the teaser. This morning we did a 14 mile bike ride from Savage River back to Riley Creek where we are camped. We took the bus out and rode back, enjoying a beautiful morning. Then this afternoon we booked a plane ride around Denali. The weather was perfect and we were blessed with some incredible views of this huge mountain. Tomorrow I’ll sort through the photos and video and give you a better sample of the flight but here are a few teaser shots to whet your appetite.

Zee plane, zee plane…
Zee pilot, zee pilot…
The mountain!

More to come tomorrow when I have a chance to sort through 120 photos and four or five videos. It was a spectacular 200 plus mile journey by air to circle around this monster of a mountain, larger in mass than Everest and with a larger vertical rise than Everest, though not as tall in elevation. More to come on Denali, stand by.

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…