Category Archives: The Alaska Highway

The journey of a lifetime. To Alaska from California, then back to Michigan, summer, 2014.

An Extravagance of Space

I have lived in North America for most of my life and have only been vaguely aware of the luxurious space in which we live.  I became more aware of it while traveling the Alaska Highway last summer. Many times when I was ready to pull back onto the road after a fuel stop or an overnight campground stay,  I would look both ways for an opening in traffic…  and not see another vehicle in either direction.  Really.  As far as the eye could see.  Nobody.

I was repeatedly surprised — and a bit unnerved — at the vastness of it all.

Not another vehicle in sight, as far as the eye can see.
The Alaska Highway across the Yukon.  Not another vehicle in sight, for miles and miles.

Canada has a population density of 9 people per square mile (the US has 48).  That amounts to a lot of uninhabited space.  I have had anxiety issues in traffic before, usually in the middle of a 5-lane-wide traffic jam in some inner city.  But out in the vast and lonely stretches of the Alaska Highway I almost had anxiety issues of another sort imagining what it would take (and what it would cost) to acquire help in case of a breakdown when the nearest town was hundreds of miles away — and there was no cellular service anyway.

The reality of our isolation was profound.  We were quite truly and utterly alone.

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And now there’s another sort of space situation that we are facing, but it has more to do with elbow room than the availability of roadside services.

After four years of downsizing,  first from a 10-room house to a one-room log cabin,  we have finally sold both the house and the log cabin on our 30-acre property of 42 years and are hitting the road in a 29-foot fifth wheel.  Fortunately, we have already tried it out for awhile, traveling the country for the last year, but we still had the Michigan property and plenty of storage space for our stuff.

We have started moving the last of our stuff into the storage unit.
We have started moving the last of our stuff into storage.

 We were able to be extravagant about what we kept while sorting through our lifetime accumulated stash, because we had enough room to store everything.

But that is no longer true.

We just brought home our new home-away-from-home... in a snowstorm.
We are moving from the log cabin into the RV for the next few years – and leaving snow behind.

So we are moving the last of our keepsakes into one of those self-storage units and will inhabit a tiny mobile space for the next few years.  They say that that sort of close co-habitation will either cause two people to bond inseparably…  or make them kill each other!

Our salvation from cabin fever has always been the great outdoors.  We have lived in rural Michigan for most of our adult lives and could safely walk or bike the side roads or the pathways and lanes on the property.  Shoot, I had a private  route mapped out — and mowed — for jogging a mile without even leaving the property.

But part of our reason for selling the place is the brutality of the  Michigan winters.  The cold and ice and snow brought about a virtual house arrest as it were, trapping us inside for a third of every year.

For two active retirees who like to get out and walk several miles every day, that’s not good.  And we are doing something about it.  We are heading south during the wintertime.  Now we’ll be looking for new open spaces, new bike lanes and boardwalks and walking trails in every new place we live over the next years, hopefully in places where we need not worry about slipping and falling on icy roads or sidewalks.

We’ll be looking for other extravagant spaces.  Nature trails and wildlife areas and rail trails and beaches.  Especially beaches.

The beach at Seacliff.
I loved the beach at Seacliff, California last winter — entirely unaffected by the Polar Vortex.

Because Americans really do enjoy an extravagance of space.  Even RV-ers living in their highly efficient but tiny mobile spaces.

(Just think, you could have been born in Macau, the most heavily populated country in the world, with a population density of more than 73,000 people per square mile.)

The Denali Back Alley

Milepost 9-2-14

“And where are you from?”  It is usually the first thing that comes out of anybody’s mouth as they are meeting someone new in Alaska, and all along the Alaska Highway, for that matter.  It seems that everybody there is from somewhere else.

Oklahoma, Ontario, Florida, Washington, California, Ukraine, Bulgaria.  We met people from all over the world.  But we only saw a few native Americans – or First Nation – as they are called in Alaska.

Wendi is a shift manager at the popular Black Bear Coffee House on the boardwalk.
Wendi is a shift manager at the popular Black Bear Coffee House on the boardwalk.

Our destination in Alaska was the Denali area because our daughter and son-in-law have lived and worked there every summer for the last nine years.  Wendi is a barista and shift manager at the popular Black Bear Coffee House, and Scott runs their adventure outfitter, Denali Adventure Tours.  The two shops are  located on the boardwalk in McKinley Park about 200 feet apart with about ten shops between the two.

Scott and Wendi own Denali Adventure Tours and supply the tourists with adventure trips from whitewater rafting to fly-overs of McKinley.
Scott and Wendi own Denali Adventure Tours and supply the tourists with adventure trips from whitewater rafting to fly-overs of McKinley.

Rainbow Village, the RV park where we stayed, was right behind the row of shops, a virtual parking lot with utility hookups.  It was really handy to the back doors of the shops and helped us to see the back story of the lives of the seasonal workers, an intriguing sub-culture.

These young seasonal workers at the coffee house are all from somewhere in the lower 48 states.
These young seasonal workers at the coffee house are all from somewhere in the lower 48 states.

The village completely shuts down in the wintertime, so everybody has to go somewhere else.  Many of the workers get seasonal jobs elsewhere in the country, or like Scott, they are students or teachers at universities.  Wendi gets a temp job where they live in California during the  winter.  One of the pilots at Denali Air flies shuttles in the Philippines every winter, so he works the tourist industry in two hemispheres.

Pilot Bob flies tourists over Denali in the summer - and over the ocean in the Philippines during the winter.
Pilot Bob flies tourists over Denali in the summer – and over the ocean in the Philippines during the winter.

It was fun for us to stay at Denali for more than five weeks so we had time to get acquainted with Scott and Wendi’s friends and learn a bit about their lives at both ends, the summer at Denali and the other three seasons somewhere else in the world.

Kaye talks with Michelle, a shop owner from Toronto, about how she ended up in Alaska.
Kaye talks with Michelle, a shop owner from Ontario, about how she ended up in Alaska.

It’s a transient life for those guys, and I think we understand it a lot more now that we have lived on the road for the last seven months, covering 10,000 miles of contrasting geography from the Great Plains to the deserts of the Southwest to mountains of the west coast and western Canada.

Waking up every morning we have to look around and see where we are to get a sense of location.  The seasonal workers must have to often think about where they are at the dawn of every new day.  It’s an interesting way to live.  We loved getting behind the scenes while we were there.

Scott and Wendi live in a 10'x12' dry cabin during their summers up north.
Scott and Wendi live in a 10’x12′ dry cabin in the forest during their summers in Alaska.
Head space and elbow room are limited in the little cabins.
Head space and elbow room are limited in the little cabins.
The workers come to the "cook shack" for their meals which are prepared by a hired chef.
The workers come to the “cook shack” for their meals which are prepared by a hired chef.
"Cooky" makes sure everybody is well-fed with bountiful balanced meals
Bijan makes sure everybody is well-fed with bountiful balanced meals.
Keith is a performer at one of the dinner theaters...  and a salesman at a gift shop during the day.  He's from Washington D.C.
Keith is a performer at one of the dinner theaters (the beard is part of his stage persona)…  and he’s a salesman at a gift shop during the day. He’s from Washington D.C.
These performers stayed in small bunk rooms with common restrooms... down the hall or out in back.
These performers share small bunk rooms with common restrooms… down the hall or out in back.
Shop owners Andrea and Brandon are from Anchorage and Michigan but now spend their winters in Arizona.
Shop owners Andrea and Brandon are from Anchorage and Michigan but now spend their winters in Arizona.
Scott enjoys the view of McKinley Park and Mt. Healy from the front door of Denali Adventure Tours.
Kaye and Scott enjoy the view of McKinley Park and Mt. Healy from the front door of Denali Adventure Tours.
Get your adventure fix from Scott when you are in the Denali area.
Get your adventure fix from Scott when you are in the Denali area.

So everybody’s from somewhere.  Kaye and I had a great time this summer  discovering the back stories on our kids’ friends and fellow workers at McKinley Park near Denali National Park and Preserve.

 

Yukon Do It!

Alaska Highway Milepost 3,678  Lincoln, Nebraska

Having completed the Alaska Highway – both out and back – there are some tips that I would share with the next would-be adventurer to help you survive the ordeal.  And yes, like any other challenge, there is both good and bad that awaits you.  Thoughtful preparation will minimize the negatives and ensure an enjoyable experience.

The Alaska Highway skirts Kluane Lake in the Yukon.
The Alaska Highway skirts Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory.  Most of it is paved.
  • First of all, it will streamline the entire venture if you do your homework before leaving your house.  Study the route and know where you are going, which attractions you want to stop and explore, where you plan to stop each night, and where you can stock up on provisions.  The most comprehensive help that most travelers get comes from the famous Mileposts publication.  We ordered one from Amazon.com along with an Alaska atlas of maps.  We kept both in the pickup cab and referred to them constantly.
    This RV park at Coal River, Yukon, was 100 miles from the nearest power grid and was operating on its own generator.  We had the campground to ourselves for the night.
    This RV park at Coal River, Yukon, was more than 100 miles from the nearest power grid and was operating on its own generator. We had the campground to ourselves for the night.
  • Another thing to do before heading north is to prepare your vehicle.  Your tires need to be in good condition along with a solid spare for both the RV and the tow vehicle.  Make sure you are able to change a tire if necessary.  Replace worn belts and hoses and change the oil.
    Your vehicle needs to be ready for just about anything, although this sort of off-roading is not required along the highway.
    Your vehicle needs to be ready for just about anything, especially if you plan to go into the backcountry for fishing, hiking, four-wheeling and the like.
  • It is important to inform your bank and credit card company that you will be traveling internationally so your cards won’t be flagged and leave you stranded at the gas pump.  Carry multiple sources of revenue and keep a reserve of funds on hand for inflated costs and emergencies.  Assume that you will see an expensive souvenir that you just have to have for the grandkids. We found ATM’s located in far-away places and carried cash for those times when the bankcard wouldn’t fly at the gas stop.  It happened several times.
Many of the roadhouses have closed, some many years ago, some last year.  Even Mileposts magazine listed some that we found no longer in service.
Many of the roadhouses have closed, some many years ago, some last year. Even Mileposts magazine listed some that we found no longer in service.  We filled our tank often to avoid being stranded.
  • Also in the planning stages, set aside as much time for this trip as you possibly can; there is a whole lot to see and it is spread out over a vast area.  We spent about 2 weeks on the road each way, and more than 5 weeks at the Denali area.  Still we did not see everything we could have.
A side trip to the old Independence Gold Mine in the mountains above Anchorage, was a hike that I was able to take in after parking the rig at the RV park for the night.
A side trip to the old Independence Gold Mine in the mountains above Anchorage, was a hike that I was able to take in after parking the rig at the RV park for the night.
  • The Alaska Highway is in a state of constant reconstruction and should be approached with a realistic sensibility.  Backup plans need to be in place for those days when you don’t reach your destination because you’ve been caught in a construction zone for a couple of hours.  Flexibility and a good attitude will help.
Traffic across this bridge was narrowed to one lane while workers maintained the superstructure beneath.
Traffic across this bridge was narrowed to one lane while workers maintained the superstructure beneath.
  • Don’t count on internet and iPhone service anywhere beyond the Canadian border.  Our cell phones worked for calls (big roaming charges) when we were in towns and RV parks, but not out in the boonies, and our mobile wifi didn’t work anywhere in Canada or Alaska.  There are hundreds-of-mile stretches with no service, so make sure you still know how to navigate the old fashioned way.  Fortunately, we were able to get (weak) internet service at some of the RV parks where we stayed, so we were able to keep up with our online banking, email and Facebook updates, and so on, but the bandwidth was never sufficient enough for Skype, FaceTime, or uploading photos to the blog.  Bummer.

For most people, driving the Alaska Highway is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  It will be memorable either way, but if things go well, it will be a positive memory rather than a disaster.  If it’s on your bucket list, I hope you plan ahead and have a great time.  Be safe!

The biggest hazard on the Alaska Highway is the wildlife.  Moose, bears, bison and caribou are all large and will completely destroy your vehicle if you hit one.
The biggest hazard on the Alaska Highway is the wildlife. Moose, bears, bison and caribou are all large and will completely destroy your vehicle if you hit one.

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Gorgeous sights line the Alaska Highway from beginning to end.  This is the mountain range the road follows between Delta Junction and Fairbanks.
Gorgeous sights line the Alaska Highway from beginning to end. This is the Alaska Range viewed from the north along the road between Delta Junction and Fairbanks.

On and On and On… On the Open Road

We finally made it to the lower 48!  It took 11 days to cover 3,678 miles from Denali to Lincoln, Nebraska, where we are visiting with friends for a few days before finishing the trek to the log cabin in Michigan.

Of course, the terrain changed with every passing state or province.  We finally left the northern Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and spent several days crossing the northern plains.  Our photos captured the corresponding changes.

The first several days we spent inching our way through the high mountains.
The first several days we spent inching our way through the high mountains…
... and the last several days we flew across the open prairie.
… and the last several days we flew across the open prairie.

Kaye and I are currently resting up, restocking the fridge, and enjoying the return of decent internet services.  We’re pretty worn out but basking in the accomplishment of driving the Alaska Highway… both ways!  We’ll be writing lots more about our experiences as we get rested up and ready to return to a more normal flow of life.

Heading Home

Milepost 260  Palmer  Alaska

Alaskans are only half civilized… and proud of it.  The call of the wild includes the lure of wild wide-open spaces, but it brings a lot of inconvenience for the outsiders from the lower 48 who are used to their perks.  While camped at Denali for the last five weeks Kaye and I have had to accept that we won’t have a good internet link, and for me that has meant a long silence with regard to my travel blog.  I haven’t posted because I simply couldn’t get online for much of the time.

Anyway, we departed Denali yesterday for the 4,000 miles trek back across the Alaska Highway to Michigan and plan to take about three weeks doing it.  Our first stop near Anchorage provided a good internet connection, so I’m logging a quick post to let everyone know we are on the road again and will likely not be posting very often while heading across through the Yukon and northern Canada.

I am planning to write some more extensive reviews after arriving back in civilization.

Bob and Kaye at the entrance to the 6 million acre Denali National Park and Preserve.
Bob and Kaye at the entrance to the 6 million acre Denali National Park and Preserve.

Go Climb a Mountain

Milepost 7-7-14    McKinley Park, Alaska

“Climbing a mountain” is a figurative expression that is used to acknowledge the presence of a monumental challenge, something that we know will be difficult. It could be something like pursuing a college degree or quitting smoking or any of a thousand other tough quests.
For us three years ago, it was the process of downsizing and moving out of our house of 40 years so we could move into an RV and pursue life on the road. It was truly monumental.

This was the climb of a lifetime for me, the summit of the Mt. Healy Overlook.
This was the climb of a lifetime for me, the summit of the Mt. Healy Overlook.

But yesterday, “climbing a mountain” was not figurative language for me but an actual event.  After a couple weeks of consideration and a practice run at it, I took on the challenge of the difficult hiking trail to the Mt. Healy Overlook.   A week before, I had hiked the first half of it then turned back, deciding it was too strenuous. Finally, I was able to view the first attempt as conditioning for yesterday’s ultimate climb. And it worked; I made it to the top, a vertical climb of 1,700 feet over 2.3 miles!  In fact, I cut a bit of time off the predicted duration of 4 to 5 hours for the round trip.

At higher elevations this trail didn't appear to be much more than a mountain goat path.
At higher elevations this trail didn’t appear to be much more than a mountain goat path.

Arriving back in the canyon in the late afternoon, I went to see Scott at Denali Adventure Tours to update him on the details of the climb (Yes, I decided that the steep trail would be more accurately described as a “climb” rather than a hike).   That’s when I discovered that my first information ranking the difficulty of the climb as “moderate” was bad intel.  Sure enough, Scott’s vast encyclopedia of adventure knowledge pegged that trail as “strenuous”.   Now I could believe that!
As I had been scrambling over large boulders on the upper slopes I had heard myself grumbling under my breath about the guy who must have ranked the trail without ever climbing it. “Only a 16-year-old athlete would call this a “moderate” hike!” I fumed.

Having brought along their camp stove, these climbers rewarded themselves with a hot meal at the summit.
Having brought along their camp stove, these climbers rewarded themselves with a hot meal at the summit.

In terms of “Climbing a mountain”, this one was the real thing! The truth is, I would definitely not have taken on that climb if I had known up front what a grueling challenge I was in for.  But now that I’ve done it, I’m happy about it…  and happy to still be alive!

Here are more photos of my adventure:

The climbers swapped cameras to photographically document their accomplishment.
The climbers swapped cameras to document their climbing accomplishment with photographs.

Climbers at the Mt. Healy summit

Wow, the trail on the ridge leads into the distance.  I'd love to follow it, but not this time.
Wow, the trail on the ridge leads into the distance. I’d love to follow it, but don’t have any strength left…  and there’s still the descent ahead of me.
Mt. Healy beckons from across the canyon from Denali Adventure Tours where owner and answer man, Scott, takes it all in.
Mt. Healy beckons from across the canyon where Denali Adventure Tours  owner and answer man, Scott, enjoys the panorama.

What is your next mountain that needs climbing?

 

Rock and Snow – Mt. McKinley Fly-By

Milepost 7-1-14   Mt. McKinley, Alaska

“Tree line is at 3,000 feet,” said our pilot, Dan.  “Above 7,000 feet there’s just rock and snow.”  We had just taken off in a little 8-seater plane for a fly-by of Mt. McKinley, the highest point on the North American continent, and Dan was already sharing his comprehensive knowledge of the mountain geography, naming rivers, glaciers and mountains as we skimmed over snow-capped peaks on a bee-line for Denali.

An aerial view of the Polychrome Mountains also reveals a distance glimpse of the Parks Highway on the other side of the valley.
An aerial view of the Polychrome Mountains also reveals a distant glimpse of the Parks Highway skirting the other side of the valley.

At first there was a lot of color as we climbed out of the dark green forest, but before long there was only snow and rocky cliffs, sure enough.  There were glaciers by the dozen, some of them perched in hanging valleys, others stretching into the distance like long wide rivers of ice.

Denali panorama

Mountains with glacier

Our flight took us delightfully close to the jagged peaks as Dan zig-zagged his way between spires and pinnacles all along the way.  We soon reached Mount McKinley itself, a huge, disorganized heap of rock with all sorts of cliffs and mounds facing in all directions and several glaciers oozing from its high canyons and valleys.Denali glacierHigh peak near DenaliPretty soon we made a wide banking turn over a massive glacier and headed back through the dizzying maze of peaks as Dan pointed out a trail across a snow field left by the last team of climbers on the mountain.  I wondered how they knew where it was safe to cross; I was seeing dozens of crevasses from the air.Denali crevasses

Eldridge glacier is 35 miles long and hundred of feet thick.
Eldridge glacier is 35 miles long and hundreds of feet thick.

Mountains

This flight to the Mountain was certainly the pinnacle of my Alaska experience.  We are just about halfway through our summer in the land of the midnight sun and realizing that it is such a vast area that we will not get to see everything; there is just no way.Denali glacier verticle

Seeing it from the air certainly covers a lot of territory in a short time.  Maybe I’ll get to catch another flight around the Mountain before my time is up here.   What a natural high!

Dan was my pilot on Denali Air.
Dan does a great job as pilot and owner of the flight-seeing company, Denali Air.

 My flight was arranged by my son-in-law, Scott, the owner of Denali Adventure Tours.  It’s just one of many adventure trips they provide.

(Click on any of the photos in this post to see a larger view.)