Thursday, August 21, 2008

August 18 - 21: Cassiar Highway

Attempting to avoid backtracking as we passed back through Canada, we decided to take the Cassiar Highway. The Cassiar is even more remote the Alaska Highway, with only a few outposts over it's 600 miles. We saw a handful of bears interspersed by rainbows; it was a beautiful drive.

Towards the end of the Cassiar we detoured west to the towns of Seward, Canada and Hyder, Alaska. Straddling the international border, these former mining towns were once prominent ports before World War II, with tens of thousands of inhabitants, but now they are closer to ghost towns with a population in the low hundreds. Like Seward, these towns are surrounded by mountains and glaciers, giving them a stunning location. We watched some massive salmon attempt to swim upstream through waters shallower than they are tall, perused the toaster museum, and had some beers with the estranged locals in Hyder, AK where they take Canadian currency, respect Canadian holidays, and are on BC's timezone (everywhere except the post office which is a federal building).

Then the rain began. We were planning a backcountry trip into Jasper National Park, but once it looked like the rain was here to stay we decided to just keep driving. We're now, somewhere across the US border in Idaho and should be back in the Bay Area in a couple days.

Oh and we finally have a good enough internet connection to upload this short digital camera video we took at the top of Mt. Rose in Denali. The sound is crackily due to the wind, but you should be able to get a sense of the land.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Pictures from Kenai Fjords National Park

Here are some pics taken from the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park (map)

August 13 - 17: Anchorage and Denali

On Wednesday we headed north to Anchorage where we spent a day exploring the city (ok, we did also go to a movie... taking advantage of our only stop in a real city this month!). The Moose's Tooth lived up to Kent's recommendation, great microbrews and delicious pizzas.

Thursday it was Denali National Park take two, this time under perfect skies. The deliberateness with which Denali protects itself is truly amazing. Access into the park is only allowed on the park's system of buses. The 6 million acres of the park are broken up into 87 backcountry units -- each with a limit of just 2-12 people allowed to camp inside them for any given night. After watching the required safety video (which caused more bear anxiety for Allison!), we headed out into our private 9,000 acre slice of beauty. Most unique to Denali's approach is that there are no trails anywhere in the entire park. Hikers follow their own instincts and topographical maps to navigate and thereby preserve the wilderness. After some serious bushwacking, we ended up probably the most awe inspiring vista and camping site we'd ever experienced. We'll let the pictures speak for themselves.... McKinley was just faintly visible from behind our campsite. All this beauty for the price of exactly $0.

From Denali we officially began the journey home, starting out on the Trans-Alaska pipeline highway which was built for the sole purpose of supporting the pipeline from Deadhorse to Valdez.... A very real and visual reminder of where 45% of this state's revenue comes from.

Friday night we returned a favorite camping spot 15 miles outside of the booming metropolis of Delta Junction (population 800). Only this time we made it over to the adjacent bar we'd somehow missed on our way up. Clearly the only spot in "town", each newcomer was welcomed with hugs, high-fives and the type of small town intimacy that had Allison musing about whether they might be able to live somewhere like this. A young waitress (daughter of the bar's owner) struck up a conversation with us, thirsty for interaction with non-locals. When asked about the winter here she described a full week of -55 degree whether last year which was doubly rough because it was hockey week and the rink wasn't heated. Ok, fantasy of small Alaskan town living has been taken off the list.

We're now back in the Yukon continuing south.... possibly with some detours into Jasper and/or Glacier National Park if time allows. Oh yeah, and the subaru is humming along like a champ -- so we decided to hold onto her vs. making the sale :)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

August 8 - 12th: Yukon to Seward

We made it to beautiful Alaska, where the days are long and the nights are cold.... Especially just south of Fairbanks where we spent our first night in this amazing state which aptly proclaims itself the "last frontier". The sun sets around 10:30 and rises again around 4:30 with a never fully dark twilight in between. The lightness adds to the expansiveness of this place with not only space but time feeling larger than life.

We woke to a frigid morning on Saturday which formed the perfect backdrop to our first stop of the day: The Northpole. The town reincorporated with a new name awhile back in an effort to lure the toymaking industry with "made in the Northpole" labels. The gimic didn't quite work but it was a cute little haven of kitch with all the letters written by kids and addressed to "The Northpole" ending up here and posted on the walls. Nader still owes Allison big time for making her pose in this picture with Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

From there we headed north of Fairbanks to the Chena hotsprings, our most northern stop of the journey. The hotsprings were glorious -- although their true draw is as a wintertime destination where you can gaze at the northern lights while you soak. (After, that is, walking to the hotsprings in your bathingsuit in -30 degree whether...). They also have an ice museum/hotel at Chena. Everything in the museum/hotel is made of ice including the 4 bedrooms where for the price of $600 you can attempt to stay overnight wrapped in artic sleeping bags. About 30 couples have tried the adventure over the past 5 years but only 6 have made it through the whole night. The space is engineered to stay at 20 degrees all year long to maintain the sculptures inside... realizing as we froze during our 30 minute tour that it actually needs to be HEATED in the winter months to achieve this temperature, we felt very humbled by the strength that it takes to live in this part of the world during those long winter months.

Fairbanks was a fairly skipable pitstop (which we had been warned). From there it was down to Denali National Park, well almost. We woke in a wet tent and downpours that showed no sign of stopping and decided to push our backcountry adventure off by a week and head to the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. The day cleared up past Anchorage (which we haven't yet explored, will do so on the way back up) and the drive was simply spectacular.

The weather gods who drowned out our Denali plans shown with all their glory yesterday. We took a day-long boat tour under shining sun that only hits these parts a handful of days each summer. What luck. We saw orcas, a humpback whale, dall's porpoises, sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagle, puffins. And then there were the glaciers. Due to limited recent activity in the past week or so, our captain was able to navigate through the ice to get within 1/3 of a mile of one. We sat there for awhile watching and listening to the calving (when pieces of ice fall into the ocean). Like a storm rolling across a large pasture, the sound comes first as a slow thunderous rumble. The ice then splits as the departing chunk crashes into the sea below. Several moments later the wake of the fall would sway our boat. The awe of the experience silenced our boat of 100 some tourists for a good 15 minutes... a feat not to be underestimated. It was amazing. (Nader has better wildlife pictures than those shown here... he needs to fancify them, or whatever he does, and will upload them later).

One of Nader's colleagues from Tamale, Pete, happens to also be in Seward visiting his brother who's captain of one of the tour boats. Pete himself spent several summers in Seward working as part of the significant seasonal crew here to support the fishing and tourism. Through Pete and his brother Gary we've been able to check out some of the local flavor in town. Rain's in the forecast for the next several days so we're planning our next move... After many days of driving it's been great to take a little pause in this friendly town.

Oh, and Nader did get to see his grizzly just a few hours after the last post about wanting to see one. It ambled across a wide expanse next to the highway and we marveled at it's glory (Allison, very happy to be doing so from the car....).

Friday, August 8, 2008

August 4-7: British Columbia & Yukon Territory

We're in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory right now, the largest town we've seen in many days. With a bustling population of 24,000, we've slowed our pace for the day to take advantage of the services, namely to get an oil change and pick up a mosquito net. The only reservations we could get in Denali National Park were a couple days earlier than we had originally planned, so we're generally on a torrid pace, averaging 400-500 miles a day on this leg.

The last few days have been a journey into the increasing remote wilderness of Northwestern Canada. (We're hoping to cross into Alaska today). Each day finds us at a more beautiful alpine lake and campsite then the last, deeper into Pillars of the Earth book on tape, and amidst stranger communities, if you can call them that. For the last couple days I'm not sure anything we've passed would qualify as a town, mostly lodges along the Alaska highway that sometimes offer gas, coffee, knives, guns and fur hats. We came close to running out of gas yesterday and have learned to try not to let the tank get below half full in these parts.

Some highlights from the past few days:
- We stumbled around Vancouver on a perfectly sunny Monday and it felt like a ghost town. Each neighborhood we walked through felt abandoned, and then we finally realized that it was a long weekend as Monday was BC day. We ended up at the beach at Stanley Park and found everybody. It was too packed to fully enjoy, but with the looming mountains, the cityscape and the glittering Pacific, it looked like an amazing place to spend an evening when the crowds weren't there. Vancouver does a great job of bringing the beach into their neighborhoods, San Francisco could learn from them.
- Swimming/bathing in alpine lakes and rivers multiple times a day. The water is very cold, but incredibly invigorating, especially with the snow-capped peaks all around.

- There are a couple not to be missed spots on the Alaska Highway. Both the Signpost Forest, thousands of sign from all over the world in the middle of nowhere), and the Liard Hot Springs were both well worth the stops. One of the hot springs was closed as a grizzly was apparently enjoying the waters...

- The far we've seen bison, caribou and mountain sheep on this drive. Still haven't seen a grizzly...I'm hoping to soon, Allison's not so sure...