Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Yukon-Alaska Border to Fairbanks

When we crossed the border from the Yukon Territory to Alaska on the morning of September 6th we’d been on the road for 8½ days and 2,876 miles. Our plan was to arrive in Fairbanks on September 9th. This gave us a few days to spare. We felt it was high-time to slow down and really absorb the natural beauty all around us.

The first town of any size after entering Alaska was Tok (rhymes with poke.) Here we sought the very first restaurant meal of our trip (tired of cold turkey sandwiches) a few groceries (everything is expensive here) a full tank of gas, and camping information from the Tok visitor center.

At the visitor center a friendly volunteer gave us a tip on great camping 65 miles south on the Tok cut-off towards Anchorage. She told us to watch for the Nabesna road and a ranger station right after the turn. We had no idea what to expect but were quite amazed when we pulled into the ranger station and learned we had just entered the largest National Park in the U.S., Wrangell-St.Elias, with 22.9 million acres of park and preserve lands. There are only two roads that go in and neither goes out again unless you turn around and drive back the way you came. Nabesna Road was the northernmost of the two. We were told we could camp in any pull-out along the 28 mile gravel stretch. There was no entry fee and no camping fee, just enjoy! We set out in search of a site with a great view. There were plenty to choose from.

We parked Moonshadow on a rise with spectacular views all around. We had the place entirely to ourselves. Only a few other park visitors drove by each day. We were especially enthralled by the carpet of autumn colors painted on mountain slopes and valleys by the  low growing brush with oddly skinny black spruce trees sometimes growing like a dense, dark forest and other times just poking up here and there.

Snow covered Mt.Sanford, a 16,237 ft. peak, and one of the many lakes
along the 28 mile drive.

View from our campsite, watercolor by Spike Ress.

Leaving the park after two relaxing days we intended to travel south to Gakona Jct., then north towards Fairbanks on the Richardson Hwy. Needing gas soon we consulted our Milepost guide and learned of a Texaco located at the junction. When we arrived we found it was an “EXACO” and was boarded up. Across the way beckoned a colorful little espresso wagon surrounded by flower pots full of blooming flowers. We drove on over and met Louise Lindley, “owner/slave” of Jeanni’s Java/ Loui’s Lunches.  She had a warm, friendly smile and was happy to give advice. She assured us we’d find gas up the road at Sourdough. There was no Sourdough on the map but we had to believe her. She then suggested we try one of her “famous” salmon sandwiches. It was a sunny day, we were hungry and her picnic table surrounded by flowers looked inviting. When she brought us the sandwiches we knew the lettuce was very fresh because every flower pot and planter had big, healthy lettuce growing along with the nasturtiums and pansies. It was delicious. If you are ever passing through Gakona Jct., stop by to chat with Louise and eat a sandwich (except in the winter – forget it- she’s not there!)

Up the road a piece, sure enough, there was a place called Sourdough – an RV park/lodge/store/gas station, i.e., one lonely pump. As we pulled up to the pump (hidden here by the van) we were doubtful. The pump looked rusty and leaned to one side. The price on the pump meter read $1.79 per gallon. Before we could drive away a lean, tan, lanky man appeared, asked us if we wanted gas, then unlocked the little gray shed, went inside, flipped a few switches and the pump came to life. We had no idea what price per gallon we were about to pay but we had no choice. We were close to empty.

We had a nice conversation with the man about Airstreams and gave him a look inside our Moonshadow. When our gas tank was full he sent us inside to a woman at the register who calculated our charge based on current prices. The total was fair and we were pleased. We asked the man about buying drinking water. He said they had none for sale. They had to truck in safe drinking water for themselves, but he took our 3 gallon water container and filled it up from his own supply, no charge. Everywhere we go, we are meeting very nice people here in Alaska.

Back on the road we encounter two Caribou bucks.

Our first glacier sighting, Gulkana Glacier just south of our next camping destination, Fielding Lake.

We set up camp beside an inlet stream at Fielding Lake.

A view out our Airstream window, sunset on mountains to the east.

The previous day as we set up camp at Fielding Lake we met our camp neighbors who were renting a public use cabin right next to us, Alaskans Charley & Liz. They filled us in on recent moose and grizzly bear activity in the campground and welcomed us to Alaska with a package of their own unbelievably delicious smoked salmon.

The Richardson Hwy. parallels the Alaska Pipeline for many miles. In this view you can see its zigzag path across the landscape. We learned the zigzag is necessary to allow for expansion and contraction sideways during periods of extreme temperature fluctuation. This sideways movement prevents ruptures.

We arrived in Fairbanks area as scheduled, the afternoon of September 9th.  For the coming week we will be camped in the driveway of our generous hosts in North Pole. More about these good friends in our next posting.

A. Yukon Alaska border
B. Wrangell-Saint Elias NP
C. Fielding Lake
D. North Pole, AK

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Alaska, 3200 Miles One-way

Why take an airplane when we can take an Airstream?  Why fly 3,200 miles in a few hours when we can spend weeks on the road getting there?  Why sit next to a sweaty, cranky stranger (or a too friendly one,) breathe stale, recirculated air full of germs while looking out at an endless blanket of clouds. We’d rather be in the comfort of our own vehicle, breathe fresh air all day long, watch the clouds above us shift shapes while experiencing every inch of every change in landscape and culture along the way from our home in southern Utah, through Idaho, Montana, into Canada; Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory and back into the U.S. at the Alaska border, then on to Fairbanks. What a true adventure that would be, and we’re doing it!

It all began two years ago when a friend with the Fairbanks Watercolor Society worked to set up a 5-day workshop teaching gig for Spike in Fairbanks, scheduled for September, 2011. From the first we knew we’d rather drive than fly. Moonshadow (our 1955 Airstream) was in the beginning stages of restoration. Plans for a complete take-apart-to-the-frame and rebuild in 2011-12 were postponed as we prepared her instead for a long, sometimes rough journey northward.

As plans progressed Sue was able to line up a 2-day workshop for a group of Fairbanks book artists. We spent a busy summer working on Moonshadow inside and out, preparing materials for our workshops as well as doing art exhibits in Taos, Santa Fe and southern Utah. It was with relief and excited anticipation we hit the road at last on August 29th. We arrived in Fairbanks September 9th after twelve days and 3,400 miles (due to side trips.) What follows are photos and stories from the first leg of our trip.

August 30th, one and a half long days of driving, 941 miles from home, we cross into Alberta, Canada from Montana at the Port of Carway, an out of the way location west of the busy I-15 customs station.  We were put through the full process - show passports, background checks, van and trailer search - but were back on our way within 15 minutes.

We drove through Calgary during the 5:00 PM rush-hour in a drenching downpour. The next day the sky cleared as we by-passed Edmonton (to avoid the morning rush-hour.) We enjoyed a sunny day across Alberta.

As we entered British Columbia we began to see alpine landscape with snowcapped peaks, white and black spruce and lodgepole pine. 

We begin to see wildlife along the roadside. This caribou gave us a good shot before disappearing into the forest. This was the first of many caribou sightings ahead.

The Alaska Highway:
We connected with the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek BC, Canada on day 4, mile 1,666 of our trip. We re-set our trip-meter to zero because our Milepost guide book is based on mileages from specific starting points. The Alaska Highway starts in Dawson Creek at official mile 0, which is where construction on the road began in 1942.

The highway officially ends at Delta Junction in Alaska at historic milepost 1422. Improvements to the road over the years have straightened, leveled and re-routed some areas so current mileposts no longer match the historic mileposts, in addition, in the mid-1970s Canada switched to kilometers. Some of the historic mile markers are still in place.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the need for a roadway from the rest of the US to Alaska was urgently needed to transport troops and equipment to defend the coast.  Thousands of US soldiers were sent to Dawson Creek and other locations along the chosen route. Construction began in March, 1942 and was completed on October 29, of the same year. It was a rudimentary road passable only by military vehicles. It was called the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada) by the military. It was opened to civilian use in 1948 and renamed the Alaska Highway.

Day five on the road we arrive at Muncho Lake, B.C., ready for R&R after four days pushing forward for as many miles as we could manage each day.  We had planned ahead to make Muncho a sit-still break. Back in July we’d read an article in the Airstream club’s monthly magazine about a trip to Alaska taken by Airstreaming couple Pam and George Millis. Muncho was one of the most beautiful campsites they found.  We took their advice to make a stop there. We were happy to get an excellent site right next to the water.

Shortly after we set up camp at Muncho, along came another Airstream and backed into the site right next to ours. It wasn’t long before we were visiting with Pam and George Millis in person!  They were on their way home to Florida after their second grand tour of Alaska, on the road since May.

More roadside wildlife – this is one of two very large, intimidating bison bulls who were digging and rolling in the dirt on this slope near the highway.

We make our way further north and cross the border into Yukon Territory at historic milepost 585 on the original 1942 Alaska-Canada (Al-Can) highway.

Signpost Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon Territory.
The tradition of travelers posting a sign from their hometowns was begun by Clark K. Lindley, a U.S. Army soldier from Danville, IL. He was working on construction of the Alaska Hwy in 1942. Travelers continue to add to the collection which now numbers over 70,000. We forgot to steal a sign from Parowan before we left home. Maybe next time.

Yukon landscape is dramatic. The further north we continue, the more snow on the mountains and the more autumn colors. We had off and on rain with dramatic stormy skies for much of our drive across Canada.

A view of Kluane Lake as we drive the east boundary of Kluane National Park in Yukon Territory, Canada.  There’s plenty of water up here!

Day 9 – Back in the U.S.A. - we reached the Alaska border 2,876 miles from Parowan, Utah, 242.7 gallons of gas. This photo looks north along a 20 ft. wide swath cut by surveyors in 1904-1920 along the 141st meridian, part of the boundary between Alaska and Canada extending from the Arctic Ocean 600 miles to the north to 250 miles south of this point.

A. Parowan, UT
B. Muncho Lake, BC
C. Alaska border